How Do Electric Vehicles (EVs) Really Work?

Although to many of us the idea of an electric car as very futuristic and certainly extremely ‘of the 21st century’ ,but in actual fact at the turn of the twentieth century electric cars were the norm. However, once the likes of Henry Ford and his peers had perfected the use of the internal combustion engine in a car gas guzzlers completely eclipsed electric vehicles and they quickly became a thing of the past.

However back then gasoline was cheap and no one had really given too much thought to what having millions of cars spewing out gas fumes and more on a regular basis would do to the environment and neither had anyone entertained the idea that perhaps one day all of the ‘black gold’ would start running out. Now we all are aware of all of these things, which is why all electric vehicles are making a comeback after decades in the car manufacturing wilderness.

Electric Cars versus Hybrid Cars

An electric car and a hybrid car are not the same things. A car like the Toyota Prius, which many people cite as a very ‘green’ car, still has a gasoline powered engine that is only supplemented by electric power, allowing for less gas usage. It’s a step in the right direction, but not an ultimate solution. A car like the Tesla Roadster is different though, it is an all-electric powered vehicle, it never needs to go near a traditional gas station, and yet it, and an increasing number of peers, is also an attractive, fun to drive vehicle that even the most die-hard of ‘petrolheads’ can appreciate to a certain extent.

So How Do Electric Vehicles Work Anyway?

As we previously mentioned, the basic technology behind electric cars is really nothing new, although obviously that being employed in today’s new crop of EVs has advanced a great deal.

When seen driving on the road, an EV looks the same as any other car on the road and from looks alone most people would not have a clue that they were looking at a car powered by electricity rather than one propelled along by a gasoline engine. What may give it away, even before you get a peek under the hood, is the lack of engine noise, although in some of the higher end new EVS, the ones designed to lure internal combustion engine fans to electric, additional features have been added that simulate engine noise so that that aspect of the driving experience, which many people love, is not lost.

At the very heart of any electric car there are three main components:

  1. The electric motor itself
  2. The motor’s controller
  3. The batteries

The main controller draws its power from the batteries and then delivers it directly to the motor. The accelerator pedal is linked to a set of potentiometers (variable resistors) that then provide an informational signal that relays to the controller how much power it is to deliver.

The biggest difficulty facing electric car makers for years has been the battery system and how and when it charges. Slowly though, improvements have been made. The best-selling pure EV in the US in 2013 was the Nissan Leaf. It has a range of an EPA estimated 73 miles (117 km) although Nissan themselves claim that is an underestimation, and indeed in Europe the car is rated at 175km ( 109 miles) by the New European Driving Cycle and consumer driving experience has found that the ‘truth’ lies somewhere between the two numbers at around 99-100 miles (159-160km)

The second bestseller, the Tesla S, which is very much like a luxury car such as the BMW 5 series in both looks and performance, is even more impressive, as it boasts a single charge range of between an EPA estimated 208 miles (335 km) and 265 mi (426 km) depending upon the battery size chosen (and again, the European Driving Cycle estimates are higher than the EPAs)

In terms of charging using a fast charge option and a hardwired 249 volt outlet (the kind you have installed in the home to safely power a tumble dryer) full charge times for both vehicles is less than an hour. When recharging from a standard 120 volt outlet the time obviously increases to around eight hours for the Tesla S and six for the Nissan Leaf although both companies are debuting faster charge options even from low power outlets for their 2014 lines. Tesla are also in the process of building a series of highway based charging stations in the US that allow for a 90 second battery swap!

Then of course there is speed. The popular misconception about all electric cars is that they are exceptionally slow compared to their gas powered counterparts and that even keeping up with the general flow of traffic is somehow going to be hard. However, the Leaf currently boasts a top speed of 93 mph and the Tesla S can be cranked up to 125 mph.

The Leaf and the S are far from the only electric vehicles available right now though, they are simply those that are selling best. In fact in the highly competitive luxury car market Tesla outsold BMW, Mercedes and Audi in the first half of 2013 and the Leaf racked up 40,600 US sales in the first half of 2013, beating out a great many gas powered alternatives.

Electric cars are far from perfect yet, but they are getting there. More manufacturers are getting into the idea as well, with the likes of BMW, Ford, Toyota, General Motors and Mitsubishi all getting in on the act as well.