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How Do Electric Cars Work?

How Do Electric Cars Work?

If you're on the market for a new car, you might already be considering doing the big shift - going electric. With the federal government banning the sale of traditional gas cars and hybrids soon, virtually every major carmaker is now offering all-electric vehicles. While the technology has been around for quite a while now, most Americans are still over the fence about it, with only 4% of car owners opting to go electric. This can be attributed to misconceptions about EVs, such as range anxiety and safety concerns.

If you're one of the skeptics, knowing how electric cars work might just be the nudge you need. Let's break down the technology, explore the different types of electric cars available, and tackle those common concerns that might be holding you back.

The Basics

At its core, an electric vehicle operates on the principle of electricity as the primary source of power instead of conventional internal combustion engines. The key components responsible for this transformation include the charge port, inverter, traction battery, electric traction motor, and electric powertrain.

Key components of an EV

EVs are complex systems that rely on various components working in harmony to provide efficient and sustainable transportation. Here are the key components of an electric vehicle:

The Charge Port

The charge port is where an electric vehicle receives its lifeblood – electricity. Typically located on the exterior of the vehicle, this port is akin to the fuel tank inlet in a gas-powered car. Drivers can plug their EVs into charging stations or home chargers, initiating the replenishment of the battery pack.

The Inverter

The inverter (aka the onboard charger) plays a crucial role in converting direct current (DC) electricity from the EV battery packs into alternating current (AC) to power the electric motor and recharge the auxiliary battery. This conversion is essential as most electric motors operate on AC power, while batteries supply DC power.

The Traction Battery

The traction battery is the energy reservoir of an electric vehicle. Usually lithium-ion batteries, these power sources store the vehicle's electricity. The size and capacity of electric car batteries impact the range and performance of the EV.

The Electric Traction Motor

The electric traction motor is the heart of an electric vehicle, converting electrical energy from the battery into mechanical energy to propel the vehicle. Unlike internal combustion engines, electric motors offer instant torque, providing a smooth and efficient driving experience.

The Power Electronics

The power electronics encompass the entire system responsible for generating power and transferring it to the wheels. This includes the battery, electric motor, inverter, and transmission (in some cases). The powertrain is a critical component that manages the flow of electrical energy delivered by the battery and ensures the seamless integration of various elements to propel the vehicle.

What Types of EVs Are There?

Electric vehicles come in different forms, catering to various preferences and use cases. The primary types of EVs include Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV), Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV), and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV).

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV)

The Tesla Model S is one of the top-selling BEVs on the market.

BEVs rely solely on electric power, drawing energy from their traction batteries. They do not have an internal combustion engine and produce zero tailpipe emissions, making them an ideal choice for eco-conscious consumers. The range of BEVs has significantly improved in recent years, addressing concerns about limited driving distances.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)

The Toyota Prius is a full-hybrid vehicle that can be propelled by gasoline or electric motor.

HEVs combine an internal combustion engine with an electric motor and a small battery. Unlike BEVs, HEVs can run on gasoline or electricity, with the system seamlessly switching between the two based on driving conditions. HEVs are often more fuel-efficient than traditional gas-powered vehicles but may not offer the same all-electric range as BEVs.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV)

The BMW 330e is a plug-in hybrid sedan.

PHEVs, like HEVs, feature both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. However, PHEVs have a larger battery that can be charged by plugging into an external power source. This enables PHEVs to function exclusively in electric mode over a specified distance before switching to the internal combustion engine, offering versatility for various driving situations.

The Types of EV Charging

Charging infrastructure is a critical aspect of widespread EV adoption. There are different levels of charging, each offering varying charging speeds and compatibility with different EV models.

Level 1 Charging

Level 1 charging involves using a standard household outlet to charge an electric car. While convenient, it is the slowest charging option, typically providing around 2 to 5 miles of range per hour of charging. This method is suitable for overnight charging at home.

Level 2 Charging

Level 2 charging requires a dedicated charging station and is faster than Level 1 charging. With power levels ranging from 3.3 kW to 19.2 kW, Level 2 chargers can replenish an electric vehicle's battery at a rate of 10 to 60 miles of range per hour, depending on the charging station's power.

DC Fast Charging

DC Fast Charging is the fastest option and is commonly found at public charging stations. These chargers can deliver high-power DC directly to the electric vehicle's battery, providing rapid charging. Depending on the charger's power output and the EV's compatibility, DC Fast Charging can add approximately 60 to 100 miles of range in just 20 minutes.


  • What happens if your EV runs out of battery?

    If an EV runs out of battery, it will come to a stop, much like a traditional vehicle running out of fuel. However, most EVs are equipped with systems that provide ample warnings and information about the remaining range. Drivers should plan their routes and charging stops accordingly to avoid running out of battery.

  • How long does it take to charge an EV?

    The charging time for an electric vehicle depends on the charging level and the capacity of the battery. Level 1 charging can take several hours, while Level 2 charging is faster. DC Fast Charging, being the quickest, can provide a significant amount of range in a short time, typically around 20-30 minutes for an 80% charge.

  • How exactly do EVs work?

    Electric vehicles operate by converting electrical energy stored in the traction battery into mechanical energy through the electric motor. The inverter plays a crucial role in converting DC power from the battery into AC power for the motor. This process is highly efficient and results in the smooth and silent operation characteristic of electric vehicles.

  • Do electric cars recharge while driving?

    Electric cars utilize regenerative braking as a mechanism to recover and store energy while driving, but they do not recharge in the same way as conventional fuel-powered vehicles. When a driver applies the brakes or releases the accelerator, the electric motor switches to generator mode, producing electricity that is then fed back into the traction battery.

  • How do electric cars work for long distance?

    Electric cars are well-suited for long distances with the growing availability of fast-charging infrastructure. DC Fast Charging allows EVs to recharge quickly during long journeys, making it feasible for drivers to take breaks and top up their batteries. Additionally, advancements in battery technology are continually improving the range of electric vehicles, reducing the need for frequent charging stops during long-distance travel.

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