How Do Electric Cars Work?
Electric cars work by receiving power from an internal electric motor (more powerful models may have multiple motors) which can sit in the front or back of the car. In order to power this motor, each EV has a large lithium-ion battery underneath the floor that must be charged at regular intervals using a home wallbox or public charging station.
This is a high-level overview of how all electric cars work, but what does an EV’s engineering mean for maintenance costs? And how should you use one of these vehicles to optimise its efficiency? Find out the answers to these questions and more in this guide.
Electric car components
While the battery and motor are the two most major components inside an electric car, they aren’t the only parts which play a vital role in keeping each EV running smoothly.
Here’s what each electric vehicle comes packed with and how it enables the whole car to work properly.
The hub of an electric vehicle is its battery. Without it, all its systems wouldn’t be able to operate because there would be no electricity being sent to the motors.
This is different from a standard car’s battery, which usually runs a fraction of what the pack does in an EV, such as air conditioning and the radio. For this reason, powerful and larger lithium-ion (or ‘li-on’) batteries are used which can take the cars an average of 181 miles on a single charge.
These batteries first came about in the 1990s and are widely used in information tech devices such as laptops. Ultimately they’re seen by scientists as the closest we’ve ever come to developing the ‘complete’ rechargeable battery, due to it being lightweight and low maintenance.
The motor(s) in an electric car are what replace the entire internal combustion engine (ICE) found in ordinary petrol and diesel vehicles.
In short, this motor uses power from the battery to drive the EV’s wheels. The more powerful an electric motor is (or if multiple motors are used in the car) means that the car is likely to have more horsepower (HP) for better performance.
Just like the battery in an electric car, an onboard charger comes in different capacities which can determine how quickly your EV charges.
An onboard charger takes the incoming AC (alternating current) electricity from a charging station and converts it to DC (direct current) power in order to charge the battery. On top of this, it also detects battery properties such as voltage, temperature, current and state of charge while it’s charging.
A thermal system in an electric car is ultimately the equivalent of an engine coolant system in a standard vehicle.
The difference here is that an EV’s cooling system ensures that there’s a correct operating temperature between the battery, motor, electrical systems and all other components.
During regular maintenance or after an electric car has been in for a scheduled service, coolant levels should be checked and topped up where necessary to ensure the vehicle runs efficiently.
A converter takes the high-voltage DC power from the battery and converts it to the lower-voltage DC power which runs accessories in the car and recharges the secondary auxiliary battery.
Power electronics controller
A power electronics controller directs the flow of electrical energy which is delivered by the battery and in turn managing the speed and power of the motor.
Auxiliary battery pack
Electric cars have an auxiliary battery in the front which powers accessories in the vehicle, freeing up the main traction pack beneath the floor to power the motor and other essential operating systems which drive the vehicle.
All electric cars come with a charging port that allows the vehicle to connect to a charger using a dedicated Type-2-to-Type-2 cable for charging the traction battery.
Depending on the model of your EV, the port will either be located at the front of the car on the bonnet, such as in the Nissan Leaf, or at the back where the fuel cap would be in a typical vehicle, such as in the Hyundai Ioniq EV.
Electric cars have a single-speed transmission which doesn’t have gear ratios like in an automatic vehicle.
This transmission transfers mechanical power from the motor to drive the car’s wheels, and it can deliver torque (or power) from almost any number of revolutions per minute (RPM).
How does charging work?
Charging an electric car is essential to ensuring that it has miles under its belt and there are a plethora of options available out there to suit each sort of driver and model of EV.
There are two different ways you can plug in your electric car – at home through a domestic wallbox or at a public charging station, which can now be found at regular petrol stations, or at places of work and supermarkets.
The two types of electrical current used for charging EVs are AC and DC.
The most common type of current which all electric cars are compatible to use.
All home charging points and most public chargers using slow (3kW) and fast (7kW and 22kW) charging transmit AC electricity from the station/wallbox to your electric vehicle through either a 3-pin-to-Type-2 cable or Type-2-to-Type-2 cable.
Once this happens, the onboard charger in your EV converts the AC current to DC before sending the converted electricity to the battery pack. You’re now officially charging and giving your car more range!
A standard Renault Zoe with a 52kWh battery can achieve a full charge (0-100%) using a regular 7kW fast charger in seven hours. This is reduced to just over two hours when the charger is a 22kW one, but the reality is that you will rarely be letting your car go completely flat before charging it.
How fast you can charge an electric car depends on the battery capacity of the vehicle, the wattage of the charging station and the charging cable being used.
Remember: For quicker charging times, look at electric cars which have good onboard charger capacity.
You’ll probably know this type of current best as ‘rapid charging’ (50kW) and that it’s not available on most entry-level, mass-market EVs. For example, the Renault Zoe has a certain trim level on its Iconic spec which is enabled with DC charging.
Tesla on the other hand has its own network of ‘superchargers’ which all of its cars can use exclusively.
The difference between DC and AC is that charging stations which transmit the former automatically converts the alternating current to the direct current, without the need for an onboard charger. As such, this step in the process is bypassed and charge is sent directly to the battery.
What this means is that, rather than charge being limited by the capacity of an onboard charger, much faster rates of charge can be achieved.
Using the Renault Zoe as an example, a rapid charge will take it from 0-80% battery life in 45 minutes.
Remember: These charging points are few and far between compared with AC chargers, and will be more expensive.
For more information on costs of different charging points, check out our other guide uncovering how much it costs to charge an electric car.
Driving an electric car
Unlike regular cars, those powered by electricity don’t require an engine to deliver power to a transmission before sending this to the wheels. Instead, power is instantly delivered to the wheels the moment you step on the accelerator, making it more efficient and quicker off the mark than most petrol or diesel cars.
And this doesn’t just apply to performance vehicles either. Take the Vauxhall Corsa for example, the all-electric version of which can do 0-62mph in 8.1 seconds, compared with the 9.9 seconds it takes for the petrol version to reach these speeds.
However, assuming you’re like most drivers and haven’t just bought an electric car for quick acceleration alone, what additional systems do you need to be aware of? And is there a right and wrong way to drive an EV?
Most modern electric cars have fully digital instrument panels behind the steering wheel. However, rather than featuring your standard fuel tank symbol with an ‘E’ on the left and ‘R’ on the right signifying how much fuel you have left, there will be a number displayed showing you the miles of range you have left and often the battery percentage this translates to.
While ‘range anxiety’ is a common buzzword used to describe the distrust some motorists have in an EV’s ability to meet the range quoted by the manufacturer, there are now ‘real range’ tests in place to give a more accurate reflection of how far each electric car can travel on a single charge.
What’s more is that your electric vehicle will let you know when it’s running low and you need to pull over to charge it.
A common misconception of electric cars is that they are automatic, but even standard automatic vehicles have a transmission which has gear ratios for going higher and lower when required.
On the other hand, almost every EV features a single-speed transmission that doesn’t alternate when you go faster or slow down, meaning it has great power output across its entire RPM range.
Of course, you do have drive, reverse, neutral and park modes as you would in an automatic. But instead of a gear lever, this will often be a switch of some form that allows you to select your preferred setting.
Almost all electric cars feature an array of driving modes which allow you to dictate whether you want to drive in a way that conserves range (often labelled ‘Eco’), suits everyday driving (also known as ‘Normal’) or is more engaging under acceleration and while steering (otherwise known as ‘Sport’).
Volkswagen, Honda and Hyundai all use driving modes like these on its EVs, along with many other manufacturers. Making use of them during the appropriate times (e.g. using Normal mode when you’re on a long-distance journey, Eco for local commutes and Sport on winding roads and you have sufficient charge).
Are electric cars cheaper to maintain/service?
With less moving parts than an internal combustion engine found in a standard car, it’s generally easier and therefore cheaper to maintain vital components such as the battery and motor.
What this also means is that you won’t require an oil filter or any oil changes in order to lubricate an engine, which can be a considerable additional cost for petrol and diesel cars after a scheduled service.
Costs saved on electric car servicing
As a rough guide, a full service and MOT for a standard car (recommended once a year/every 12,000 miles driven) from Halfords costs around £175. However, this can be more expensive if anything needs replacing or fixing which falls outside of the standard wear and tear criteria of these services.
Electric car servicing costs
So, we know that the way electric cars are designed and built help keep servicing costs down, but what exactly needs looking at when you take one to a garage? And how much would it likely cost you? Let’s take a look.
A typical service interval for an electric car will rarely involve replacing parts such as the ones listed above, especially not within the first three years you have it. Instead, a lot of the work carried out will include annual diagnostic checks.
Using figures from Driving Electric, here are some examples of service schedule costs for some of the most popular EVs on the market.
- BMW i3 – £239 for diagnostics and electrical items replacement (if applicable).
- Renault Zoe – £449 for three years’ fixed-price servicing plan or £669 for four years.
- Volkswagen e-Golf – £297 for a two-year service plan.
- Jaguar I-Pace – £1,000 for a three-year service plan.
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Want to learn more about electric and hybrid cars, or motoring in general? Then check out our handy guides page to answer your driving FAQs or to help you find your ideal new car.