How do electric cars work?

5 minutes

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The technology behind electric vehicles 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, electric cars are becoming more popular – in 2018 there were 155,000 registered 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 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 electric cars is their eco-friendly credentials – with zero emissions, they produce no pollutants.

On the whole, electric cars may not have the same performance flair as petrol and diesel cars. But with government schemes making buying an electric car more affordable , they now offer better value.

Electric car battery

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 electric car batteries are mainly used to drive the car itself.

Lithium-ion is the most common type of battery 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, Jaguar’s I-Pace battery has a capacity of 90 kWh, suitable for an SUV-sized vehicle and capable of driving almost 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 200-mile range.

Electric car batteries are expected to last 8 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. 

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.

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. Times vary depending on the engine size and charger power.

There are more than 16,000 charging points across the UK that can be found at:

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

The government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) offers a grant that covers up to 75 per cent of the cost of installing specialist plug-in points at home. It’s hoped that this will encourage more drivers to switch to electric cars.

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 £2-4 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 an electric 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.

An electric vehicle’s battery doubles 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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