Dick Lovett

How do electric cars work?

Posted 7th October 2022

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With sales of Electric Vehicles (EVs) continuing to rise – figures from the SMMT showed a year-on-year increase from July 2022 compared to July 2021 of almost 50%, with 127,492 registrations vs 85,032 – it’s becoming clear where the future of motoring is. To frame the volume of electric vehicle sales into some sort of context, comparative sales of both diesel and petrol models were down in the same period, and significantly – 48.7% down in the case of diesel, and 19.2% down for petrol.

UK motorists are embracing the new era of electric vehicles, becoming more confident in the evolving technology, improved driving range available, and the growth of the charging network – allaying earlier concerns that EVs might ‘run out of juice’ due to a lack of stations to top-up the battery.

But, how do electric cars work? What is the process that takes place to power electric vehicles for driving ranges that are now 200 miles and beyond? Here’s a simple explanation of how electric cars work, the main components involved, and what happens when it’s time to charge an EV.

What are the Main Components of Electric Vehicles?

Compared to diesel and petrol models, which are classed as vehicles with an ‘ICE’ – Internal Combustion Engine – an electric vehicle has a lot less components and moving parts. There’s obviously no fuel tank, no engine, spark plugs, oil filter… and on, and on…

Instead, the main components of electric vehicles are minimal. An electric car has an electric motor and an inverter, which is required to convert the electric current from the Direct Current (DC) type that is stored in the battery to the Alternating Current (AC) type which is needed by the motor.

An electric car also has a battery pack, which consists of lithium-ion batteries or cells, a drivetrain, and a charging socket. The battery is usually located along the bottom of the vehicle. Depending on the make and model of the car, batteries have different capacities; the higher the kWh of the battery, the further the range it can drive on a single charge. The new MINI Electric, for example, has a driving range of 145 miles while the Jaguar I-PACE can cover a distance of 292 miles.

Jaguar I PACE Charging

How does the Electric Car Engine Work?

Did we say engine? It’s just out of habit – an electric car doesn’t actually have an engine. So, without an engine, how does an electric car work?

It has an electric motor, instead, which is powered by the battery. When an electric car is connected to energy supplied from the national grid (or solar panels), the battery or cells are re-charged. The battery’s output is direct current (DC) power, which is then converted to alternating current (AC) power by the electric motor – turning the wheels and operating the vehicle.

Do electric cars have gears?

Many electric cars have a single gear only, in contrast to diesel and petrol vehicles, which have five, or sometimes six, gears. Because electric cars don’t have multi-speed transmission, there’s no need for a gearbox and no need for a clutch – drivers don’t move through the gears, and there isn’t the risk of stalling the car. Instead, the electric motor provides almost instant power and torque, and only one gear is required.

BMW iX Gear Shifter
There are rare exceptions. The Porsche Taycan has two gears, aimed at improving acceleration and driving efficiency. In the future, we may see the development of more electric vehicles with more than a single gear.

How does Charging Electric Cars Work?

Regular charging is required for EVs, and an important part of the process in how electric cars work. 

You can charge an electric vehicle by plugging it into a household-style socket or a charging unit. There are typically three types of chargers. You can use a three-pin plug, like you would use in the home, and connect that to any standard socket.

There’s also a socketed charge point, which you connect to a Type 1 or Type 2 cable, or a tethered version, which is a charge point with a cable attached with either a Type 1 or Type 2 connector. Charging times vary depending on which type of charging point you use.

Porsche Taycan Charging

Slow charging – up to 3kW – takes around 8 hours for a typical electric vehicle. This sort of rate would be similar to charging overnight at home, or during the day in a workplace. 

Fast charging – 7kW or 22kW – is achieved by using charging points that you’re likely to find in car parks and houses with off-street parking. You can charge a typical electric vehicle to full in around 4 hours.

Rapid charging – 43kW – is only compatible with EVs that support this capability. Full charging can be achieved within an hour, or even as quickly as 30 minutes for a typical electric car.

Many electric cars also feature something called regenerative braking, which is a way of recharging as you drive. When you take your foot off the accelerator, kinetic energy is converted back into electricity to top the battery back up.

Are all Electric Cars Automatic?

Because most electric cars have a single gear, there’s some debate whether they’re officially considered an automatic vehicle or not. Regardless of that, they operate in much the same way as an automatic car, as they don’t have manual transmission or a gearbox, and therefore don’t require the driver to change gears (with the exception of putting it into ‘Drive’ for when you want to go forwards, and ‘Reverse’ for when you want to go backwards).  

BMW i3 Inteior side view

Looking to buy an electric car? Browse our selection of models, from BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover and Range Rover, MINI and Porsche.

Explore the electric range

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