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What is an electric car?

5 minutes

Petrol and diesel cars are easy to define, but electric vehicles (EVs) are a little trickier, as they have a number of different configurations. 

  • There are a number of different types of electric cars
  • Pure-EVs and PHEV are the most popular variants
  • Battery sizes, and therefore driving ranges, are increasing rapidly
 

All electric cars have an electric motor that powers the wheels, but this can be done with or without support from a traditional engine.

To clear up any confusion, our electric car guide explains each type and highlights their pros and cons.

Do you have to plug an electric car in?

The market is seeing a growing number of pure-electric models – which is what most people think of when discussing EVs – and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), both of which need to or can be plugged in.There are also some hybrid cars that are self-charging and don’t need to be plugged in because they use kinetic energy the car creates when slowing down or breaking to charge up the battery.

Pure-EVs

Pure-electric cars, as the name suggests, are powered solely by an electric motor. They can also be referred to as battery electric vehicles (BEVs).

Pure-EVs rely on being recharged from an external power source, typically a specialised charge point, with the on-board battery storing the electricity required to power the electric motor.

Ranges available used to be around 80-100 miles only a few years ago, but the market has moved on so fast that the normal range available for a typical family electric car is at least 150 miles.  The latest generation of EVs have pushed that figure to 250 miles and this has become the benchmark for new models coming to the market.

Pure electric cars are the greenest way to drive, with no tailpipe emissions, and the ability to be recharged from 100% renewable electricity.  Added to this, pure EVs provide a refined and smooth driving experience.

Electric cars need to be charged, and the most common way to charge an EV is overnight from a home charging point.  As well as being significantly cheaper than traditional fuel, this also has the advantage of your car being “ready to go” in the morning without the need to visit a petrol forecourt. 

On longer journeys, charging en-route may be necessary; this might involve a visit to a rapid charger which will take around 30 minutes for a full charge depending on the type of electric car. Whilst off-putting for some, this can be seen as a welcome journey break for many.  The public charging network, already 14,000 devices strong, is expanding and developing at a fast pace meaning the charging experience is improving all the time. 

A perceived higher upfront cost can been seen as a stumbling block however this can be offset both by government grants and finance options. Additionally, owners typically make any extra cost back within a few years thanks to much lower running costs compared to petrol or diesel models.  

PHEVs

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles have a smaller battery than a pure-EV, but also have a conventional petrol or diesel powertrain. This means that trips of 20-30 miles around town can be completed in electric-only mode, but after that it either needs recharging, or to be used as a hybrid with the engine and motor working together.

A PHEV can run on the engine alone, and even use the engine to top up the car’s battery, but are most efficient when used in electric mode as much as possible.

The benefit of a PHEV is that it can be used as a pure-electric car for a great many short journeys whilst having an engine for longer trips; for cars used predominantly within an urban environment this is particularly beneficial as it will mean zero emission running in built-up areas where air quality issues abound.

With pure-EV ranges increasing all the time, PHEVs will likely become more of a niche option, but for now, particularly for company car drivers, they can make great financial sense, albeit with a higher environmental impact than a pure-EV.

 

Other types of electric car

Pure-EVs and PHEVs aren’t the only forms of electric cars, though they are certainly the most common. Another version is the range-extended electric vehicle.

This has a large battery like a pure-EV, and is driven by the electric motor only. There is a small engine fitted too, though this acts as an on-board generator to charge the battery, and never drives the wheels.

The most famous example is the BMW i3 REX, which allowed drivers to almost double the i3’s electric range by topping up the battery with the engine on the move, and provides a useful safety net for longer trips. Increasing ranges in pure-EVs have seen the i3 REX dropped from sale, but the technology is expected to make a comeback in future.

Although currently rare, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs) are also an electric car. These store hydrogen in a tank, and generate electricity using the hydrogen and the surrounding air from a fuel cell stack on board. This then charges a small battery, which powers the wheels in the same way a pure-EV does, but with the potential to go around 400 miles on a single tank.

The biggest benefit is currently also its greatest drawback. You don’t recharge an FCEV, and refuelling only takes a few minutes, like refilling at a petrol station. However, this needs to be done at a dedicated refuelling site, of which there are currently only a handful in the UK.

Are hybrid cars electric vehicles?

Technically a conventional hybrid, the most famous example of which is a Toyota Prius, can be powered by an electric motor alone. Its range in electric mode is very small though, and the motor is largely there to support the engine, or cover very small distances in an engine’s place.

As such, they aren’t classed as EVs, but are electrified vehicles. Likewise, mild hybrids are electrified cars, but not EVs. These effectively use an integrated starter motor to support an engine and deliver more power, but can’t drive on electric power alone. Compared to pure-EVs they have very limited environmental benefits.

What’s in the pipeline?

Battery sizes in electric cars will continue to get larger, and this is true for both PHEVs and pure-EVs. Pure-EVs with a range of around 250-300 miles will be common by the end of the year and PHEV ranges are set to increase to around 40-50 miles.

A number of new manufacturers are looking to enter the market in the next 12 months, with Mini, Honda, Porsche, Volvo, and Fiat all due to bring out new electric cars. Some companies are setting up electric sub-brands – such as VW, Audi, Mercedes, and Volvo – which feature entirely electric line-ups, and are due to arrive within the next couple of years.

To make running these models with larger batteries viable, faster charge points – and cars that can accept higher charging speeds – are being rolled-out to keep recharging times the same, or even reducing them, despite significant advances in driving range.

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