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What is an electric car? How do electric cars work?

If you’re new to the EV game and find yourself asking ‘What is an electric car?’, don’t be shy. TG explains all…

Published: 06 Apr 2023

If you’re on the hunt for a new car (or even a used one, come to think of it) for the first time in a blue moon, it won’t have escaped your attention that electric cars are now everywhere.

Virtually every mainstream manufacturer either has a range of electric cars on sale already, or will do in the very near future. Not least because the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles is set to be outlawed in 2030. Even hybrids - which mix engines with electric power - will be banned by 2035. Nope, emissions really aren’t trendy any more.

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Anyway, those deadlines mean lots of people are now at the start of what we’ll regrettably refer to as their ‘electric car journey’ (ugh), and so will be asking themselves questions like ‘What is an electric car, exactly?’ and ‘How do electric cars work?’

You may be among them. If so, congratulations! You’re in the right place to have your most pressing electric car questions answered. Keep scrolling and we’ll bring you up to speed with the very basics of this exciting new land on the Planet Car map…

What’s an electric car? And what’s an EV?

Let’s start at the very beginning: an electric car is very simply any car that uses electricity as its primary source of propulsion. Instead of an engine and fuel tank, most electric cars use one or more electric motors to generate propulsion, which are fed by a battery; much like the one you’ll find in your smartphone. Only bigger. Much bigger.

‘EV’ stands for ‘electric vehicle’, and the shorthand version has become common parlance among car-writing types who easily get fed up of typing out ‘electric vehicle’ every time it comes up. Lazy so and so's, eh?

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And what does BEV mean?

Ah, BEV is merely an extension of EV meaning ‘battery electric vehicle’. This term is usually deployed to differentiate between various types of ‘electrified’ vehicle, as in those that have an electric component in the powertrain but aren’t themselves fully electric. Ever heard the phrases ‘self-charging hybrid’ or ‘plug-in hybrid’? Yup, those are not BEVs.

The battery in an electric vehicle is usually (but not always) located in the floor of the car, and comprises hundreds (if not thousands) of individual cells. You charge an electric car by plugging it into a socket via a cable, again much like your phone.

How do electric cars work?

Not all electric-car set-ups are the same, but generally speaking electric cars work by using energy stored in a battery to feed one or more electric motors to provide drive. Mechanically speaking they are much simpler than internal combustion powertrains as they feature only one moving part, with motors harnessing the force that’s generated by running a current through a magnetic field (yup, electromagnetism, physics fans).

Almost all electric cars make do without a gearbox, which means there’s no clutch pedal; just a brake and an accelerator. So they drive like automatics, even though, technically, they aren’t.

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Something you’ll need to get used to is that electric cars are virtually silent, with very little motor noise compared to that of a typical engine. Very weird at first, but you’ll get used to it.

Another side benefit of using electric motors is something called regenerative braking: when you lift off the throttle to slow down, the motors can be reversed to harvest recycled electricity from that forward momentum, which slows you down without using the brake pedal and simultaneously gives you a bit more juice for driving. Neat, huh?

Are all electric cars zero emissions?

All electric cars have zero tailpipe emissions, because they have, er, no tailpipe. Basically, when you drive around there isn’t a steady stream of CO2 and other harmful gases spewing out the back. And at the very least that’s good for air quality, especially in built-up areas.

But are electric cars truly zero-emission things? That’s where people are divided. Some people (quite fairly) point out that if the electricity has been generated by a coal or gas power station, then there’s still a CO2 cost to factor into EV driving. This is something that will improve over the coming decades as we (hopefully) adopt more green sources of energy.

Critics also highlight that electric cars tend to be more damaging to manufacture than internal combustion vehicles, due to the precious metals used in current battery technology (think cobalt, lithium etc) and the need to pack them onto shipping containers to feed production lines. Again, it’s a long-term issue that should improve the greener we go and the more advanced the tech gets.

Is an electric car right for me?

Ah, now that’s the million pound question. We won’t go into a fully-fledged personal assessment here, but you’ll need to weigh up a few things: firstly, the purchasing/lease costs of an EV (because the tech is new, they tend to be more expensive than equivalent petrol and diesel cars) and how much you’d make back from running on electricity (which, if you charge up at home, should be cheaper per mile than if you were using fuel from a pump).

Then you need to factor in what kind of driving you do: lots of short trips to and from home, or long-distance travel from one end of the country to the other? Electric cars are somewhat limited by range, with the longest-range electric cars offering 300+ miles from a single charge. Is that enough for you? And if it isn’t, can you find an ultra-fast charging point on your route to top up as needed? Welcome to the dilemmas of electric-car driving.

Intrigued? Why not read our 10-step guide on how to buy an electric car?

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