How Do Electric Cars Work? A Guide to EV Basics

Familiarize yourself with an EV's key components.

Electric vehicles charging
Owning an electric vehicle can mean never visiting a gas station again. 3alexd/Getty Images.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are a growing industry. The global number of electric vehicles on the road is projected to expand from 8 million in 2019 to 50 million by 2025 and close to 140 million by 2030. Many major automotive manufacturers are adapting to sell EVs.

Electric vehicles replicate the look and feel of gas-powered cars. Some models even have nonfunctional imitation grills. But the real difference between EVs and gas-powered cars is under the hood.

Parts of an Electric Vehicle

Electric vehicles have no engine, no radiator, no carburetor, and no spark plugs. Where an engine normally would be, some EVs have a front trunk. The empty space also adds safety to an electric vehicle, giving it a larger crumple zone better able to absorb force in collisions.

EVs may function differently from traditional vehicles, but they have a similar set of systems.

  • Motor
  • Fuel Source

EV Exhaust System

New EV drivers are surprised at how little vibration or noise their vehicle gives off. When the vehicle is stopped at an intersection, only the lights on the control panels let drivers know it is still on.

With zero tailpipe emissions, electric vehicles help reduce one of the leading causes of climate change. Greenhouse gases from the transportation sector accounted for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019.

EV Batteries

EV batteries store energy that helps the vehicle run. The battery is actually a pack of many smaller lithium-ion battery modules, themselves made of individual battery cells (about the size of a AAA battery). These batteries are linked together in electrical circuits to deliver the maximum power in the most efficient way possible.

Battery technology is advancing rapidly, with new chemistries and different manufacturing processes, all geared toward increasing the battery's energy density while lowering the cost of the most expensive part of the vehicle.

One danger of lithium-ion batteries is “thermal runaway," which can lead to explosive fires. To prevent this, the battery pack is cooled with a thermal management system and a protective casing.

However, the fear of battery fires may be outsized. There are approximately 156 gasoline car fires a day in the United States. Battery-driven cars are far less likely to catch fire than cars that are by definition based on the combustion of flammable liquids.

The Motor

A motor in an electric vehicle converts electricity into mechanical energy. When electricity is sent from the battery to a stationary part of the motor (the stator), it creates a magnetic field that turns a rotating part (the rotor).

The spinning rotor creates the mechanical energy that spins the car's wheels using a single gear. The more electricity, the faster the rotor turns, and since there is no shifting between gears in electric vehicles, transitions between acceleration and deceleration are smooth. 

While a gas-powered car can only have one combustion engine, an electric vehicle can have multiple motors, which act independently. A dual-motor vehicle has one motor dedicated to start-and-stop city driving and another motor (often called an induction motor) dedicated to higher speeds.

Even four-wheel drive is possible in electric vehicles because each wheel can have its own motor, increasing maneuverability and traction. Tires can even rotate in different directions, enabling fast turning.

How to Drive Electric Vehicles

The differences between electric and gas-powered cars impact the way they are driven, fueled, and maintained.

Acceleration

Electric white car drives on city street while rainy night - rear view.
Electric white car drives on city street. EMS-FORSTER-PRODUCTIONS / Getty Images

Electric vehicles are known for their quick-off-the-blocks acceleration and instant forward propulsion.

Torque is the force that produces rotation in a car's motor. Because gasoline engines start at low RPMs and increase through incremental gear shifts, there is a lag in reaching maximum torque.

In an electric vehicle, however, maximum torque is reached immediately upon pressing the accelerator. Some electric vehicles have the highest 0-60 acceleration in their vehicle class, which is especially useful in entering highways, passing slower vehicles, and avoiding accidents.

Braking

When a driver brakes in an electric vehicle, "regenerative braking” draws energy from the vehicle's momentum. This electricity is sent back into the battery, so no energy is wasted.

Driving in regenerative braking mode means every time you take your foot off the accelerator, the vehicle slows down more rapidly than in a gas car. Regenerative braking allows for “one-pedal driving,” where the brake pedal is less frequently engaged.

Handling

With a large, heavy battery running along most of its base, an EV has a lower center of gravity than most gas cars. This improves its handling around corners and in slippery road conditions. This also makes rollovers less frequent, improving the car's safety. 

Fueling

Electric car,car Electric
krisanapong detraphiphat / Getty Images

Even the fastest-charging electric vehicles take longer to charge than it takes to fill up a tank of gas. However, 80% of EV charging is done at home, overnight, in the same way, one would charge a phone, so charging speeds are more relevant for long-distance trips and for people who cannot charge at home.

Electricity can easily flow in and out of an electric vehicle, unlike gasoline, and one emerging technology is vehicle-to-home (V2H) capability. In theory, EV batteries could be used to power a household during a power outage.

Electric Vehicle Repair

Electric vehicles are more like a computer on wheels than a mechanical device. Like digital device manufacturers, some EV manufacturers send over-the-air software updates to improve the efficiency of or add new features to their vehicles. This not only extends the life of the vehicle and decreases its operating expenses.

Even when drivers don't try, electric vehicles are improving and becoming more efficient. This means that electric cars can increase in value and improve their sustainability over time.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What are the four types of electric vehicle?

    There are generally four categories of EV: battery electric vehicles (BEV), which are fully electrical; hybrids (HEV), plugless cars equipped with batteries and fuel tanks; plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV), the midpoint between a hybrid and electric vehicle; and hydrogen electric vehicles (fuel cells), uncommon vehicles that run on hydrogen.

  • Where can you charge an electric car?

    Electric cars can be charged at home (even using just a standard 120-volt outlet) or at public charging stations.

  • How often do electric cars need to be charged?

    Most electric vehicles can go 250 to 350 miles on a single charge, and they should be constantly charged 20% to 80%. While a lot of people charge their cars nightly, that's even too frequent according to some experts who say charging too often can shorten the lifespan of the battery.

  • How long do electric cars last?

    Electric cars are so new to the mainstream it's tough to say exactly how long they last. In general, they're meant to last 10 to 20 years, and the battery is likely to outlive the car itself.

View Article Sources
  1. "Global EV Outlook 2020." International Energy Agency, 2020.

  2. "Earth Day 2021 Arrives as U.S. Electric Vehicle Sales Continue to Grow." Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2021.

  3. "Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Environmental Protection Agency.

  4. "Highway Vehicle Fires (2014-2016)." Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018.

  5. Valderrama, Patricia. "Electric Vehicle Charging 101." Natural Resources Defense Council, 2019.