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What is an electric car and how does it work?

Find the answers to all your electric car-related questions, from ‘what is an electric vehicle’ to ‘how EVs work’ and ‘are electric cars automatic’.

What is an electric car?

Cars powered solely by an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine are known as electric cars or battery electric cars or all-electric cars.
Electric Vehicle (EV) or Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) are umbrella terms for any vehicle powered by electricity, including cars, bikes, vans and trucks. A hybrid car or a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), on the other hand, is powered by multiple power sources (typically electric and an internal combustion engine), either independently or working together. In this article, we’ll delve deeper into how electric cars work and what goes on underneath the car’s skin. You can learn more about the different types of hybrid cars and how they work in our article: Hybrid cars explained.

Electric cars vs petrol and diesel cars: what goes on underneath the bonnet

An electric car looks like a conventional car, but its mechanics are quite different. Electric cars have an electric powertrain made up of the electric car’s motor, battery, control systems and transmission, while a conventional car’s powertrain consists of the internal combustion engine, fuel tank and transmission. Electric cars are driven by an electric motor through (usually) a single-speed transmission, while diesel and petrol cars put their power to the road through a multi-speed transmission of some description.
A diesel or petrol car’s efficiency is measured in the number of miles covered with a gallon of liquid fuel burned in the engine. An electric car’s efficiency, on the other hand, is calculated by the number of miles covers in a kilowatt hour (kWh) since its electric motor is powered by a battery pack.

How do electric cars work?

When an electric car is switched on, the electric powertrain charges it with electricity stored in the battery and gets the car moving.
When an electric car is plugged into a charging point, the car’s battery pack stores all the energy needed to power the car. The range of an EV depends on the car’s battery – the higher the kWh capacity of the battery, the higher the range. When an electric car is switched on, the car’s inverter (also known as the controller) receives a flow of direct current (DC). The inverter uses its semiconductors to convert the DC to alternating current (AC). which is sent to the electric motor. The electric motor converts AC to mechanical energy, which is used to power the wheels and run the car.

Do electric cars have an engine?

Electric cars don’t have a traditional engine – instead, electric cars run on an electric motor. Electric motors are also referred to as an electric engine because both, electric motor and an internal combustion engine, essentially serve the same purpose. The electric motor converts electrical energy to mechanical energy and gets the car in motion, similar to how an engine converts fuel into mechanical force and runs the car.
The electric motor (or motors) will typically be mounted on or near the car’s axle or axles and can be at the front of the car, the rear or sometimes both. The electric car’s level of performance depends upon the number of electric motors present in an EV. Most Electric cars have a single electric motor – for example: a BMW i3, Kia EV6 and Citroen Ami. Higher performance EVs often have two electric motors – one on the front axle and the other on the rear – and each motor has its own electric inverter, giving the car all-wheel drive capabilities. Tesla Model S, Audi e-tron GT, BMW iX and Jaguar I-Pace are a few examples of such a configuration in an electric car. Some BEVs have even higher performance capabilities with three motors, like the Tesla Roadster, or four motors - one for each wheel. One example of a quad-motor EV is the Rimac Concept_One.

Do electric cars have gearboxes?

Most battery electric cars have a single-speed gearbox. Diesel and petrol cars use a multi-speed gearbox to increase speed because they reach peak torque and power figures within a narrow band of engine speed. Electric cars, on the other hand, deliver efficient power at any range and reach peak torque at any rpm, which is why most electric cars use a single-speed transmission.
Porsche Taycan is the first electric car to be fitted with a two-speed gearbox. Electric vehicles generate a huge amount of torque as soon as they’re switched on as they don’t need to wait for fuel to be burnt and converted to mechanical energy like petrol and diesel cars do – EVs receive electric power immediately from their battery source. An electric motor’s revolution (rev) is more powerful than in a conventional car. Battery electric cars have a higher rev range – up to 20,000 rotations per minute (rpm) – as compared to traditional cars that have a range of 6,000 – 7,000 rpm.

Are all electric cars automatic?

Electric cars aren’t automatic, even though standard buttons like the ‘D’ button for drive, ‘R’ for reverse and ‘P’ for parking make EVs feel very similar to an automatic car. Electric cars aren’t manual either.
Automatic cars have multi-speed gearboxes where the driver doesn’t need to shift gears manually. Instead, it’s done by a computerised system according to the pressure on the accelerator or brake. EVs, on the other hand, use a single-speed gearbox to control the electric motor which means there’s no gearshift at all. Thus, electric cars don’t have a clutch – EVs only have a pedal to accelerate and another one to brake. Conventional cars use a gear selector to shift gears. Electric cars, on the other hand, are fitted with an advanced motor controller unit that gets signals from the car’s electric drive selector to monitor and control the electric motor. Since EVs have a single gear, they don’t even have a reverse gear. The electric motor can rotate clockwise and anti-clockwise at the same speed which also means that an electric car can go forward and backwards at the same speed if the speed limiter is removed in reverse mode. You can see this in action in our Tesla Model 3 vs. Polestar 2 drag race.

Driving an electric car

Electric cars feel fast from the get-go – the minute you start driving an EV, the immediate supply of torque and power make EVs quickly accelerate from 0-62 mph – even faster than some sports cars.

How difficult is it to drive an electric car?

Driving an electric car can be fairly easy as it doesn’t require any gear changes and it’s quick and easy to speed up or slow down. Another difference between driving an electric car versus driving a conventional car is that off-roading can be easier as you get torque immediately – you don’t need to wait and build momentum when climbing uphill like you need to with conventional cars.

Are electric cars fun to drive?

Since BEVs use a single-speed transmission, some drivers argue that the driving experience isn’t as engaging as when you’re in control of the gears and can control how powerful the car feels.

How efficient is driving an electric car?

Electric cars use regenerative braking which increases the car’s efficiency. Regenerative braking is a method of recovering energy each time you release the accelerator and let the BEV naturally slow down. This method of braking a car means that you can also do one-pedal driving – you can just use the accelerating pedal to accelerate or decelerate. With electric cars, it can be more efficient to drive on city roads rather than highways where you hardly brake, as driving in traffic means you can make use of regenerative braking.

Do electric cars make noise when driving?

All-electric cars don’t make any sound while on the road as they don’t have an exhaust system. Many countries have made it mandatory for EVs to be fitted with an acoustic vehicle alerting system (AVAS) or a warning sound system to alert pedestrians and others on the road that the EVs approaching.
Curious about learning more on electric cars? Check our knowledge hub dedicated to electric and hybrid cars
You can also browse from thousands of new and used electric cars on Auto Trader, and make the switch to electric today. We’re also giving away a free electric car each month – all you need to do is enter our giveaway and stand the chance to drive away an electric car for free.

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