How do electric cars work?

5 minutes

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The technology behind battery charged cars has come a long way – find out just how far with this guide to how electric cars work to see if they’re the right choice for you.

  • What is an electric car?
  • How to choose the right electric car for you 
  • Everything you need to know about charging an electric car 

Powered at the plug socket rather than the fuel pump, electric cars are becoming more popular. 

How do electric cars work?

Electric cars are increasingly seen as a money-saving and eco-friendly alternative to petrol and diesel cars. Powered at the plug socket rather than the fuel pump, there's been a significant rise of battery charged cars on the road – there are over 500,000 registered battery electric vehicles on UK roads.

There are quite a few differences between electric cars and the more common diesel and petrol cars. Find out how electric cars work, electric car battery lifespan and how much they cost to run in our handy guide.

What is an electric car?

An electric car is powered by a battery pack that stores electricity. It uses an electric motor to turn the wheels rather than an internal combustion engine. While diesel and petrol cars are filled at the pump, electric car batteries are recharged at special plug-in points.

The main advantage of battery charged cars over standard types is their eco-friendly credentials – with zero emissions, they produce no pollutants.

Overall, electric cars may not have the same performance flair as petrol and diesel cars. But the latest models do manage to make your driving experience more enjoyable with the addition of a gearbox.

Electric car batteries 

Every type of car is, in some way powered by a battery. Traditional cars use lead-acid batteries to start the engine and keep things like the lights and radio on. There’s an auxiliary battery in electric cars that does this, but EV batteries are mainly used to drive the car itself.

Lithium-ion car batteries are the most common type used in the current generation of electric cars. It’s the same type of battery that powers most laptops and other electronic devices. Different car manufacturers use different battery capacities according to each model’s expected performance, range and weight.

For example, Skoda's ENYAQ iv 80 battery has a capacity of up to 80 kWh, suitable for an SUV-sized vehicle and capable of driving over 300 miles on a single charge. The Renault Zoe on the other hand is a 5-door supermini hatchback with a 41kWh capacity and a near 240-mile range.

Electric car batteries are expected to last around ten years dependant on how they're used – with a typical EV battery costing in the thousands. To help with these up-front costs, some manufacturers are offering to lease car batteries to motorists when they buy an electric car. 

Electric car battery maintenance

While degradation is natural, looking after your electric car battery correctly can help maximise performance and increase longevity. Doing so is relatively simple - in fact, battery charged cars typically require less maintenance than regular vehicles. 

State of battery charge

One of the easiest ways you can maintain the life of your EV battery is to never fully charge it or let it get completely empty. The sweet spot is between 20% to 80% charged - you can typically adjust your settings to limit the maximum charge, although you'll need to keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn't fall below 20%. Leaving a low battery sitting in park can result in permanent cell-damage, while constantly overcharging it can put stress on it.

Be wary of the heat

While you will, of course, want to take advantage of the warm summer months, you should avoid driving during extreme temperatures. Most battery charged cars do come with features that help cool the battery, but it's best to avoid keeping your car parked in direct sunlight or going for long journeys in extreme heat. High temperatures can decrease driving range and cause your battery to deteriorate much quicker. 

Don't leave it parked

As with any type of car, leaving your electric vehicle in park for too long isn't great for its overall health and battery life. Try to avoid leaving your car idle for too long, even if it's just for a five-minute drive every other day or so. Don't worry - there's no evidence to suggest that driving your car affects battery life beyond its natural capacity.

An electric car is powered by a battery pack that stores electricity. 

Charging electric cars

For maximum simplicity and convenience, you can charge your electric car at home using a domestic plug socket. The main drawback however is the time this takes – up to 15 hours  for a full charge. That’s not ideal if you rely on an electric car for commuting.

You can also get a 3kW or 7kW fast charger installed, subsidised with a grant from the Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme. These can charge a car in around 8 hours or less depending on battery size. A special rapid charger makes the process a lot quicker – a 50kW supply is capable of providing an 80 per cent charge in just 30 minutes. Some cars can charge at a rate of 100kW or 150kW. Times vary depending on the battery size and your cars maximum charging rate. 

There are more than 42,000 charging points across the UK that can be found at:

  • motorway services
  • supermarkets
  • shopping centres
  • hotels
  • on-street facilities

It's hoped the government's plug-in vehicle grant will encourage more drivers to switch to electric cars as it allows you to start charging your car battery at home.

The cost of charging electric cars varies depending on the type of facility:
  • is it a faster or slower charger?
  • are you paying as you go or using a monthly service?
  • are you paying only for the electricity or for additional service fees per charge?
  • are you charged per kWh or per hour?

At home, an overnight charge would cost about £4-6 per 100 miles of driving range. To find out more, read our guide to the cost of charging an electric car. 

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

A Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) uses hydrogen and oxygen to create energy and operate the car’s motor rather than a lithium ion battery. An early application of hydrogen fuel cells was used on NASA spacecraft.

FCEV range is arguably equal to that of a traditional car, while refuelling can be completed within minutes. As another alternative to petrol and diesel, fuel cell electric vehicles are becoming popular although there are relatively few hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK at the moment.

Motor, Braking and Regeneration

The electric car motor has one distinct difference that completely changes the driving experience. When you put your foot down in an electric car, more of the energy created goes directly into acceleration. In a traditional car, more of that torque is used to fire up the engine. This more direct flow of kinetic energy means less effort is used to drive the car.

A process called regenerative braking means your car can also convert and store kinetic energy for later use. It’s one of the most efficient and sustainable uses of energy on the market today.

Electric car batteries double as a generator. This collects the kinetic energy that drivers lose when braking in traditional cars and puts it back into the battery. This process won’t top up the battery – but nor will you lose significant charge. Also, the braking process in an electric car won’t expend energy the same way that braking in a petrol or diesel car uses fuel.

Just as electric cars and traditional petrol and diesel cars differ in how they work, there are also different things to consider when it comes to insuring them. Take a look at our electric car insurance to see how we’ve created a new kind of cover for a new kind of car.

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