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How Do Electric Cars Work

How Do Electric Cars Work

An electric car may use the same four wheels and frame, but its inner workings are quite unique. EVs have incomparably more powerful batteries and utilize the power of magnetism to convert electricity into motion.

Understanding the interactions between your car’s parts will help with maintenance, improve control, and maximize safety. While a lot of knowledge transfers between traditional and electric cars, you’ll want to update yourself on exactly how everything works.

It's been nearly two centuries since George Brayton created the liquid-fueled internal combustion engine (ICE). Despite this time, most people can't explain how these engines work beyond saying, "It burns gasoline to run."

Understandably, the public is even less knowledgeable about a relatively new technology like electric cars. However, learning the interactions between your car's parts will improve your control, maximize safety, and help you recognize when something is going wrong.

Everything starts with the battery. While traditional and electric vehicles both rely on batteries for power, comparing their respective outputs is like pitting a squirt gun against a fire hose.

How Different Types of Electric Cars Work

Not all EVs are "all-electric," meaning they use electricity as their sole power source. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) are also available for consumers who don't want to rely on electricity entirely.

All-Electric Vehicles (AEVs)

AEVs do not have an internal combustion engine, exhaust system, fuel injectors, or many other components found in a typical vehicle. They rely solely on the electricity stored in their batteries and utilize motors powered by electromagnetism.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs)

PHEVs are a middle-ground between gasoline and electric vehicles. They include both electric motors and an internal combustion engine, switching between the two for various tasks. Generally, the electric components are used for casual driving and gasoline kicks in at higher speeds.

Plug-in hybrids also include an onboard charger for use with external outlets. This feature separates it from older hybrids, which can recharge their batteries only through regenerative braking.

Do Electric Cars Have Engines?

Internal combustion engines create energy by burning a mixture of gasoline and air to create explosions. These explosions push the engine's pistons down, turn the crankshaft, and eventually set the wheels in motion.

Hybrid cars include an internal combustion engine because they still use gasoline as a partial fuel source. These vehicles rely on their mid-sized batteries for power at low speeds but switch to their gas engines when requiring more energy during acceleration or on inclined roads.

Because fully electric cars do not use a burnable fuel source, the internal combustion engine's process is clearly unsuitable for them. Instead, EVs omit the engine entirely and use motors to convert electricity into mechanical energy.

Do Electric Cars Have Motors?

In traditional cars, pressing the gas pedal allows air into the fuel control system. This kickstarts the combustion process and controls how much fuel is burned.

The mechanism in EVs isn’t called an electric car engine, but pressing the accelerator has a similar effect. The pressure signals the battery to direct a matching amount of electricity to the motor. Depending on the motor's task, this power is sent through either alternating current (AC) or direct current (DC).

DC sends electrical charges in only one direction. It is more suited for tasks requiring small amounts of power, such as operating windshield wipers or windows.

AC is the true powerhouse behind electric cars. It supplies electrical charges while occasionally reversing the directional flow. The primary advantage of AC is that its voltage is adjustable using a transformer. This flexibility lets an EV manage more precise tasks like speed control.

How Do AC Motors Work?

An EV's motors are housed by a "stator" made up of magnets at the north and south poles. The rotor includes components like magnets, conductor bars, or copper windings. The stator and rotor together generate the magnetic fields that rotate the rotor.

When an electrical current passes through the motor, it creates rotating magnetic fields that "push and pull" the rotor into continuous motion due to constant changes in polarity. This is how EV motors transform energy from electrical to mechanical.

Rotors react with the magnetic field in two ways, which categorize them as asynchronous or synchronous motors. They're differentiated by the amount of lag between the stator's rotating magnetic field and the rotor.

Synchronous motors work as their name suggests. The rotor spins at the same rate as the stator's magnetic field, creating zero slip. These motor types are great for driving around the city or neighborhood streets but cannot handle high speeds.

Asynchronous motors, also called induction motors, have a non-zero slip. The rotor spins slightly slower than the stator's magnetic field, and they generate large amounts of power for highway or all-terrain driving.

What Do Electric Cars Run On?

Electric cars run on the electricity stored in lithium-ion batteries. These batteries have seen massive changes in the past decades but have improved by leaps and bounds in recent years.

There are sedans with ranges surpassing 400 miles, like the Lucid Air, and several electric pickup trucks are also putting up impressive numbers. Concerns about lithium batteries' limited power and efficiency are rapidly disappearing in the rearview mirror.

Lithium-ion batteries are the industry standard due to their high energy density, temperature resistance, and low passive-discharge rate. These characteristics make them a perfect match for automobiles, which require significant power, heat quickly, and go through long periods of disuse.

Additionally, the cells in lithium-ion batteries are extremely resistant to charge cycles. They stay at close to their original capacity despite several years' worth of charges.

Each of a battery pack's cells contains a positive and negative terminal respectively called the cathode and the anode. Power flows from the anode (negative) to the positive (cathode) when discharging electricity to the motors. The process reverses when charging the battery.

Lithium batteries contain thousands or tens of thousands of these cells, and their number is often used as a selling point. The value comes from batteries with more cells cooling down better during charging and discharging.

If you want to get the most out of your electric car's battery, follow these rules:

  1. Take Your Time Charging: Fast charging to "fill up" in less than two hours can strain the battery cells and reduce their life.
  2. Be Mindful of Battery Capacity: Keep your battery charge between 2 and 95 percent. Overcharging or driving on a low charge damages your battery.
  3. Avoid Charging in Extreme Temperatures: Heat and cold can damage your battery by degrading binding compounds. Tesla has stated that owners shouldn't charge their batteries in temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius.

What is Regenerative Braking?

Although most of the power stems from the battery charge, some also comes from regenerative braking. Regenerative braking is a feature that takes the kinetic energy produced from slowing down or stopping and converts it into electricity.

Regenerative braking is most effective when driving in populated areas where streetlights and stop-and-go traffic are commonplace. It's estimated that regenerative braking turns between 60 to 70 percent of the kinetic energy into electricity.

This percentage doesn't mean regenerative braking increases your vehicle's range by 70 percent. However, when used in ideal conditions with a lightweight vehicle, it may add a few dozen miles to your drive.

Why Do Electric Cars Still Have a Lead Battery?

You may be surprised to learn that EVs also include the charming, old curmudgeon that is the 12-volt lead-acid battery. Yes, the same battery that's used in gasoline vehicles is still housed in your sleek, electric car of the future.

While the massive lithium-ion battery is required to move your car, it's not needed for smaller tasks like turning on the radio or locking the doors. A compact 12-volt battery better performs these lightweight processes.

Many EVs also use the smaller battery to power emergency features since it's easier for someone to disconnect after a crash.

What are Solid-State Batteries?

Lithium-ion batteries have long held a stranglehold on the EV market, but they're facing new competition in solid-state batteries. Rather than filling battery cells with a liquid or polymer to move electricity, solid-state cells use a solid electrolyte. This alternative isn't ready for commercial use but promises to be more energy-dense and to improve battery safety.

How Are Electric Cars Charged?

In the past, there were only a few places where you could recharge an electric car, but that's no longer a problem. Government programs have significantly increased the number of EV-friendly stations, and the average increase in EV ranges has also improved availability.

If you don't have a home charging area, there are plenty of public stations. However, you may have limited options at these locations.

Home Charging Options

Many EV owners choose to install a home charging system. This system greatly reduces wasted time charging in public and may even keep you out of some sketchy situations. Home charging is separated into two levels.

  • Level 1: Uses the stock charger that came with the EV. The charger typically uses a 120-volt outlet and charges a range of roughly 124 miles in a day. Level 1 charging is often called "trickle charging" due to its low efficiency.
  • Level 2: Uses an aftermarket charger, delivering considerably more power than Level 1 charging. These chargers require a 240-volt connection, which is usually a custom-installed outlet.

Public Charging Options

  • Level 2: Public level 2 provides a similar charging speed to home charging stations. It's just an option available for people who don't have the level 2 charging at home.

  • DC Fast Charging (Level 3): This method charges a strong direct current into your EV's battery. It can charge a range of up to 300 miles per hour and is often found along populated roads or highways. However, fast charging is more likely to damage a lithium-ion battery, so we recommend sticking to level 2 charging if you have the time.


Consumers should realize that not all EVs are built or powered in the same way. Some are hybrid, allowing owners more freedom in the stations they can visit, and some include superior regenerative braking that may improve their vehicle's driving range.

The EV is an amazing technological product that's rapidly rising in popularity. Understanding how these vehicles work is important for many things. It helps you decipher the car dealer's buzzword-filled sales pitch or tells you whether you want to switch from gasoline in the first place.