Are All Electric Cars Automatic?
Electric cars are almost always automatic, meaning they don’t have a clutch for changing gears, or even a gearbox. Instead, a typical electric car is a single-speed vehicle with two pedals – one for accelerating, the other for braking.
There are many benefits to be had from the automatic driving setup in EVs (electric vehicles), more so than normal cars with an automatic transmission. Read on to find out everything you need to know about how electric cars drive in this guide.
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Do electric cars have gears?
It may seem strange when you get inside an electric car for the first time, especially if you’ve mainly driven traditional manual vehicles with a gear knob. This is because EVs don’t have a gearbox or accompanying shifter at all, instead you’ll find a switch or button which allows you to select ‘drive’, ‘park’ or ‘reverse’.
If you have a sportier electric vehicle than most, such as the Porsche Taycan, then will have selectable driving modes for enhanced performance. But this has more of an affect on how much power the motors put out, and the weight of the steering, for example.
When you accelerate in an EV, there’s no feeling that the car is ‘working through the gears’ like in a standard petrol or diesel automatic model. It’s simply a case of press and go, with one setting for all speeds.
Why do electric cars only have one gear?
There are two main reasons why electric cars only have one gear.
The first is that, unlike cars with an ICE (internal combustion engine), electric cars have a lot of power efficiency inside an RPM (revolutions per minute) range which is more than double the size of a typical vehicle.
For example, most EV electric motors can be revved up to 20,000rpm, compared to around 6,000rpm on petrol and diesel models. What’s more is that instant power can be generated in all-electric vehicles from any given range of revs, whereas vehicles with multi-speed gearboxes are most efficient when they are kept within a certain range on the rev counter (usually between 1,000-2,500rpm, but depends on the vehicle and its engine).
Another reason why electric cars tend to only have one gear is that the cost associated with creating this type of vehicle is much lower than if you were to install a full driveline system. This enables manufacturers to keep the asking price of electric cars down to more affordable levels, especially as they tend to be pricier than their petrol and diesel counterparts.
Two-speed electric cars
There are some electric cars out there which use a two-speed gear ratio, which means better usability at city speeds and higher cruising pace, such as on the motorway.
German car parts maker ZF has supplied the EV industry with a two-speed gearbox, and Porsche welcomed it with open arms and decided to use it in the Taycan. So far, it’s the only mass-market electric car to feature more than one gear, but the proven benefits in performance and efficiency is likely going to lead to ZF taking more orders from manufacturers looking to make their battery-powered vehicles attractive.
Even when another gear is added to an electric car, it still remains automatic in the sense that there isn’t a manual gearshift to change between them. Instead, the unit itself automatically shifts to the larger gear when it reaches around 43mph, so that faster speeds can be achieved without overworking the motor and battery in a single gear designed predominantly for city driving.
Formula E is an exception
In 2014, the idea of Formula One motorsport took on a whole new dimension when an electric car version, known as Formula E, was introduced.
The cars featured in here are legal only on the track, with around 250kW of power, dual motors to make this output possible, ultimately translating to a 0-62mph of around 2.8 seconds and a top speed of 174mph.
In order to create maximum efficiency, 3-4-gear transmissions are needed to keep the motor producing torque across the higher RPM range and faster speeds.
3 benefits of automatic EVs
There are numerous benefits to having an automatic electric car. The simple, minimalist design reduces repair and maintenance costs, plus it makes driving easier by giving you less things to do behind the wheel.
1. Cheaper to repair/maintain
Without a complex clutch system needed to disengage an engine for selecting numerous gears, an electric car faces fewer wear and tear issues in the engine department.
There’s also no risk of damaging the engine unit by ‘redlining’ an electric car (reaching the maximum revs/engine speed a vehicle permits). Instead, the motor will only put out power while rotating at a speed which is efficient for the single gear chosen.
2. Instant torque (power)
Electric cars are instant in their delivery of power because they don’t have to rely on an internal combustion process (the burning of fuel) in order to get things moving.
In a standard petrol or diesel car, a lot of power is wasted through heat expelled from the various mechanical components involved when first accelerating.
This difference in torque delivery is noticeable in comparisons of electric and standard fuel versions of the same model, such as the Mercedes B-Class. The all-electric version of the B-Class accelerates from 0-60mph in 6.5 seconds, whereas the 2.0-litre petrol model takes 7.1 seconds to reach this same speed.
There’s no gear shifting required in an electric car as your speed changes, nor do you need to press down a clutch as you would in a regular car to do this.
Instantly, this adds a whole new kind of convenience to your driving, especially because you won’t need to remember to gear down at junctions to avoid stalling, for example. In fact, it’s not possible to stall an EV, which is even more of a bonus.
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3 disadvantages of automatic EVs
The way an electric car ultimately dictates power output and revs won’t be every driver’s cup of tea, and there are disadvantages you should consider before deciding to switch from vehicles you’re used to.
Every driver is different, but some may find it difficult to adjust to the way electric cars drive, or they may simply dislike it all together.
Not being able to shift gear and press down a clutch using coordination and feel can be seen by some as lacking that engaging driving experience which connects driver and machine. It could even get to a point where adjusting to the automatic setup is a struggle, especially if you’re so used to having that extra control over a vehicle.
2. Too much refinement
A gripe for many motorists when it comes to driving an EV is that there’s not enough ‘oomph’ when you reach higher speeds.
Unlike in a standard car, where there’s higher gears that support greater torque when you’re going beyond 80mph, for example, at this point in an EV power begins to fade out.
This isn’t to say you can’t maintain high speeds in an electric vehicle, because most have a top speed of at least 95pmh. But what it does mean is that you won’t notice the motor working to pull you along enthusiastically when you get to this point.
3. No revving
While electric cars have higher revs than a standard car, there isn’t the roaring sound of an engine to reflect this use of power when you accelerate.
The reason for this is that the ICE process (i.e. the engine burning air and fuel through pistons, spark plugs and crankshafts) coupled with the exhaust system in a normal car generates this revving sound when you hit the accelerator.
On the other hand, an EV doesn’t need to burn any fuel before power is sent to the wheels. It’s simply a case of pressing the accelerator, at which point the electric motor, powered by the onboard battery, rotates and sends power to the wheels, with little to no sound generated.
Could electric cars be manual?
Electric cars can work with a manual transmission that incorporates a clutch pedal and gear knob.
Instead of an ICE, the electric motor would run to a clutch, which would rotate a layshaft for choosing gears and then this power is sent to the rear differential to drive the wheels.
Renault currently uses a manual gearbox on its Formula E performance cars, with cables and rods enabling the car to shift between gears instead of pumps and air tanks.
However, while this works for faster EVs in competitive sport, the reality is that it’s illogical to give your typical mass-produced electric car manual gearing. This is because most of them can perform exactly how you need them in the single gear they’re given, and by adding a transmission the cost to build it would increase, as well as the weight of the car, which would probably lead to a bigger asking price and reduced efficiency.
Can you drive an electric car on an automatic licence?
If you have an automatic and manual licence, or just an automatic licence, you can drive an electric car. However, if you want to drive one which weighs more than 3.5 tonnes, you’ll need to undergo an additional five hours of training in order to do so.
Some driving instructors are now switching to electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf to save on running costs, too. But if you pass your test in an EV, you’ll only be allowed to drive automatic cars from then on.
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