How do electric cars work? Everything you need to know before getting behind the wheel
26 August 2021 | Aimee Tweedale
Ever since the UK government announced that new petrol and diesel cars would be banned from 2030, interest has been growing in electric cars.
These nifty, mains-powered vehicles are set to accelerate us into a more climate-friendly future. But have you ever wondered what’s actually going on under the hood?
Here’s a beginners’ guide to how electric cars work, and what it’s like driving an electric car.
What is an electric car?
An electric car, just like any other electrical appliance, runs on electricity.
Usually, it has an electric motor (or multiple motors), which is powered by a rechargeable battery. The battery is usually found at the bottom of the car.
You might sometimes see electric cars referred to as EVs. This stands for electric vehicles.
Unlike regular cars, electric cars don’t have a petrol or diesel engine. Instead of refuelling at petrol stations, you power them up by plugging them into a charger.
Some cars can be powered by both an electric battery and a petrol or diesel engine. These are known as plug-in hybrid cars.
Types of electric car
Electric vehicles (EVs) or battery electric vehicles (BEVs)
They’re are so many terms kicking around these days, it can all get a bit confusing. So when people are talking about electric cars that don’t need any petrol or diesel to power them, these also get called EVs (electric vehicles) or, sometimes, BEVs (battery electric vehicles). These terms both refer to cars that are 100% electric, powered only by batteries.
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs)
Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (also known as PHEVs) are a type of car that have both a battery and a traditional engine.
You can plug PHEVs in and charge them in the same way you can with a fully electric car. However, the battery capacity of this type of hybrid is usually smaller.
Here in this article, we’ll be focussing on 100% electric cars - that’s EVs or BEVs. If you want to learn more about hybrids, read our complete guide to hybrid cars and how they work.
How do electric cars work?
Just like your mobile phone or any other electrical device you use on the go, electric cars have to be plugged in and charged.
Once the battery has enough electricity, it can power the car’s motor.
Do electric cars have engines?
No, electric cars don’t have traditional engines. Instead, EVs have motors. These are powered entirely by electricity.
You might sometimes hear the words engine and motor being used interchangeably. But there’s a key difference between them.
- Motors convert energy into mechanical energy (which makes a car move)
- Engines convert thermal energy into mechanical energy
Basically, this means that the engine in a traditional car could also be called a motor. But the motor in an EV can’t be called an engine1.
Electric cars also don’t have clutch boxes, gearboxes, or exhaust pipes!
So what’s inside an EV?
Electric cars are pretty simple, really. There are far fewer moving parts inside an EV than there are inside a typical car.
In fact, the average petrol or diesel car could have as many as 2,000 parts. Meanwhile, an EV’s drive train (the combo of things that send power to the car’s wheels) could be made of as few as 20 parts2.
Here are the most important things that keep an EV running...
The motor takes power from the car’s batteries. It uses this power to create a magnetic field, which in turn spins a rotating part.
The energy created by that rotating part (or rotor) travels through the drive train to spin the car’s wheels.
Sometimes an EV might have 2 motors – this gives it 4-wheel drive.
As we mentioned before, the drive train isn’t just one part of a car. It’s a term that refers to multiple parts that carry the energy from the motor to the wheels.
In an EV, this could be made up of different software and hardware. Usually, it also includes the batteries and the charging port.
Though we often talk about an EV as having a battery, electric cars are usually powered by numerous batteries. These are stacked together in a battery pack, usually at the bottom of the car.
In the past, these were lead-acid batteries. These days, batteries inside an EV are not actually that different to the batteries in a smartphone. They’re made from lithium-ion (or Li-ion) cells, which hold onto electricity.
The capacity of an EV battery is measured in kWh. The higher the kWh, the further your EV can drive on one charge.
Of course, another one of the key things an EV has that a regular car doesn’t is a charging port.
This is where you can plug your car into any EV charger or mains outlet to get the electricity it needs. Sometimes you’ll also need to carry a charging cable in your boot (if you’re using an untethered EV charger).
How does EV charging work?
Most EV drivers keep their car topped up with electricity by plugging it in at home. Occasionally, they might also have to charge while out on the road. For this purpose, there are EV chargers dotted around the country in car parks and service stations. Fun fact: there are now more charging points in the UK than petrol stations3!
When you plug in your EV, the battery inside gets charged up with electricity. It might still seem strange in comparison to filling a tank with petrol, but it’s not complicated. In fact, it’s similar to how you already charge your phone each night!
Where does the electricity come from for electric cars?
The electricity that charges your car comes from the same place as the rest of your electricity: the National Grid.
Electric cars are only as green as the electricity you power them with. That’s why it’s important to choose a 100% renewable electricity tariff to power your car with, when you’re charging up at home – instead of electricity that comes from dirty fossil fuels.
How to drive an electric car: a beginner’s guide
Driving an electric car is much simpler than you might think.
When you learn to drive a petrol or diesel car, you have to learn how (and when) to change gears. Then there are the 3 pedals you need to accelerate, brake, and operate the clutch.
In most electric cars, you only have 2 pedals to worry about: the accelerator and the brake. There’s no gears to change, and no troublesome clutch. All you need to do is put the car in drive, and go!
Here are our 4 top tips for your first time driving an electric car.
- Read the manual: it’s an obvious place to start, but always worthwhile. Make sure you familiarise yourself with the car’s controls before you get on the road.
- Take it steady: as with any car, it’s best to take it slowly at first, accelerating and braking gradually so you can get used to your new car’s controls. Plus, watching your speed and using the controls lightly will help you to save energy, which will extend your battery life!
- Keep an eye on your range: most EVs will show you how much battery power you have left on your dashboard, and also how many miles that should give you.
- Plan your route: if you’re going on a long journey, it’s always a good idea to map it out before you start. This is because you might need to think about where you can stop to charge your battery.
What is regenerative braking?
You might have heard some EV drivers excitedly talk about one-pedal driving. This refers to the fact that when driving an EV, you don’t always need to actually touch the brake pedal in order to brake. If you ease off the accelerator, the car slows down by itself, as the motor turns in reverse.
When this happens, the kinetic energy generated by the car is sent back to the battery. You actually charge your car up by slowing down! This is known as regenerative braking.
It’s a new way of learning to drive, with the brake pedal only being used when you need to stop fast. But with the added battery life, it means you can get the most out of every journey in your EV. So it’s worth getting used to!
Do electric cars have gears?
Electric cars only have one gear – or setting. They don’t have gearboxes.
When you get in the driving seat, instead of the usual gear stick, you’ll see a switch or control that will offer you options like: park, reverse, drive, and neutral. Usually, you’ll just hit drive, and set off on your way. There won’t be that feeling of going through the gears that you would get in a petrol car.
Every EV is different, so check your manual for more info.
Are all electric cars automatic?
Technically, electric cars aren’t considered automatic. But they do drive just like an automatic.
This is because automatic petrol/diesel cars get their name from their ability to automatically change gears. But electric cars have no gears to change. They’re always in the same gear!
Thinking of making the switch to an EV?
Are you keen to get behind the wheel of an EV, but put off by the upfront cost?
Leasing is a great option for those who want to try a new car without breaking the bank.
OVO Energy members can get access to exclusive electric car leasing deals via our partners Vanarama. That’s not all: when leasing, you can also get a year’s insurance for free, along with a fully installed home EV charger.
Not yet an OVO member? Join today: we’ll supply you with 100% renewable electricity4, and plant a tree for you every year you’re with us5.
Sources and references:
4 100% of the renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. A proportion of the electricity we sell is also purchased directly from renewable generators in the UK.
5 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.