How Do Electric Cars Work? Everything You Need to Know


Electric cars have been around longer than many people may realize. However, since gasoline-powered vehicles are much more popular, the technology that runs electric cars is not well-known. They run on electricity, but how?

Electric cars run on electricity that is supplied from an external source, such as the grid. The electricity is supplied through a charging point that sends the electricity to rechargeable batteries within the car that help run an electrical motor.

Understanding how electric cars work only begins with the electrical components. Several factors go into how an electric operates. Read on to discover all you need to know about electrical cars and how they work.

Electrical Cars: How Do They Work?

Electrical cars are fast becoming a popular mode of travel in today’s world. Yet, many people do not know how they work. Since most people are familiar with gasoline-powered cars, it can be difficult to fully understand how an electrical car runs.

There is more to an electrical car than just the batteries that need to be charged. Several components work harmoniously to make sure the car is powered. Moreover, electric cars are marketed to be more efficient and more environmentally friendly, so these components need to be considered, too.

Consider the following elements that are needed for an electric car to work.

  • Source of electricity.
  • Electric motor
  • Electric converter
  • Rechargeable batteries

This list covers the essential components of an electric car. An electric car works by supplying the batteries within the car with electricity. For many, this electricity comes from the grid. Charging an electric car is the equivalent of filling a regular car with gasoline. Once the electricity is sent to the batteries, it is converted to the proper energy; it is used to power the motor.

The Types of Electric Cars

It may seem as if there is only one type of electric car. However, this is not the case. There are a few types of electric cars, and they each work a little differently. While the main points of how an electric car works remain the same, there are slight variations.

First, it is important to recognize what the different types of electric cars are. There are three main types of electric cars that you should be aware of.

  • Pure Electric Cars. These are also called “plug-in” electric cars. These are what most people think of when they think of electric cars. These vehicles run purely off electricity and need to be recharged to work. There are no gasoline components in these vehicles.
  • Plug-in Hybrid Cars. A plug-in hybrid car is an electric car that also runs on gasoline. However, a plug-in hybrid uses mostly electricity. It still would need to be charged to work properly, though it can switch to gasoline-powered when necessary.
  • Hybrid-Electric Cars. These types of vehicles run mostly on fuel, but they do have an electrical component to them. The car can switch to running on electricity at certain times. However, you cannot recharge these vehicles. Instead, the batteries are recharged through the braking system.

Why is it important to understand these different types of electric vehicles? Since some of these types of vehicles do use gasoline, it is important to know why. The main purpose behind a hybrid vehicle is efficiency.

For example, on short trips–to work or to a local store–a hybrid will most likely run solely on electricity. Once the charge of the electric motor runs out, the car would then switch to gasoline. It is a good way to make sure you get to where you are going.

While the ultimate goal for many folks is to have an all-electric vehicle, these hybrids exist, too. Either way, the electric parts of these hybrids work in the same way as a regular electric car.

The Components of an Electric Car

An electric car has fewer moving parts than a regular, gasoline-powered vehicle. This is why many electric cars feel “lighter” than their regular counterparts. However, the components that do constitute the inner workings of the vehicle are just as important.

Some of these components have already been mentioned, but it is important to take a closer look at them all to understand how they work together.

  • Electric Rechargeable Batteries. These batteries are necessary to power everything else in the car.
  • The Electric Motor. The motor is like the engine of the vehicle. It is needed to send power to the wheels and other parts of the car.
  • The Charging Port. You need a way to supply electricity to the batteries of the car. The charging port is crucial in keeping your vehicle up and running.
  • The Inverter. This device will convert DC energy into AC energy, which is required to run an electric car.

It is a very simple setup on the inside of an electric car. Many people even take the time to convert a gasoline-powered vehicle into an electric one because it does not require as many moving parts, or the same lubricant, as a regular car.

So, energy is supplied through the charging port, which sends the energy to the batteries. When the energy is needed to power the motor, it is converted to the proper energy type. All these components work together to make an electric car work. If one of the components fails, then the car will not work properly.

The Batteries

When you think of a battery for a car, you probably think of the small battery that comes with your gasoline-powered vehicle. Since a regular car runs on gasoline, it does not need the battery to be that big.

However, this is not the case with an electric vehicle. Consider that an electric vehicle runs primarily (or completely) on electricity. This does not mean, however, that the battery is this massive block stuck in the middle of the car. Instead, electric cars use a battery pack–a series of batteries that are all connected.

The batteries that comprise these packs are similar to the lithium-ion batteries in smartphones but on a much larger scale. These batteries are designed to be long-lasting. While the battery in a smartphone may begin to fade after a couple of years, the batteries in an electric car last much longer.

Here are some more important aspects of the rechargeable batteries in electric cars that are worth considering.

  • Many can last eight years or longer. Depending on which brand of car you get, the batteries can have a guarantee of eight years or more. However, most batteries are predicted to last upward of 20 years before a replacement would be needed.
  • Batteries can be expensive. While the overall price of electric car batteries is falling, they are still fairly expensive, which makes their long lifespan important.
  • Battery capacity varies. The battery capacity is not universal. Some models have a low capacity–around 18 kWh–, and some have a high capacity–around 100 kWh. The higher the capacity, the longer the battery will last and the better range the car will have.
  • Electric car batteries can be reused. There will come a point when the battery in an electric vehicle will no longer properly run the car. However, that does not mean the battery is “dead.” These batteries can be reused with solar panels and other alternative energies.

The batteries of an electric car are what keep the motor supplied with energy, and they are one of the most important components of how an electric car works.

The Electric Motor

The electric motor is another component of an electric car that is vital to its performance. The electric motor is what powers the wheels of the car, but how does the electric motor work?

When someone presses down on the accelerator, power is taken from the batteries and fed to the motor. The motor then uses that energy to power the wheels.

There are other aspects of an electric motor that differentiate it from the engine in a regular vehicle that are worth looking at.

  • A motor uses mechanical energy. An engine uses thermal energy to generate energy to power a vehicle. In an engine, this is known as combustion. An electric motor, however, uses motion to generate that energy.
  • Electric motors’ main components are “stators” and “rotors.” The stator remains static and generates energy to create a magnetic field which is then used to turn the rotor.
  • Electric motors use AC energy. The batteries in an electric car, however, use DC energy, so before the energy can be used in the motor, it must pass through a converter that will convert the DC energy to usable AC energy.
  • Asynchronous motors use a stator to generate the magnetic field. One of the two types of electric motors, an asynchronous motor, relies on the stator to power the rotor.
  • Synchronous motors utilize the rotor to help generate the magnetic field. Unlike an asynchronous motor, the rotor plays an active role in generating the energy for the vehicle.
  • Electric motors are part of an “electric powertrain.” To power an electric car, the motor is part of a system known as a powertrain. This powertrain helps the motor work properly across the entire car.

Without the electric motor, an electric car would not move. Its importance is evident when considering how all the components of an electric car work together.

The Charging Port

In a regular, gasoline-powered vehicle, there is a port located in the rear of the car where you insert a nozzle and fill the tank up with gas. This is essentially “charging” the car.

This same principle is used for the charging port of an electric car. The charging port can be located in various places on an electric car. Sometimes it is found near the front of the car, closer to the batteries, which it is helping supply with energy.

Think of the charging port as a plug for the electric car. Similar to how a smartphone is charged, the charging port in an electric car can be hooked up to various plugs. These plugs will take an external source of electricity and send it to the batteries in the vehicle, charging them to power the other components of the car.

For this to work properly, the charging port needs to be properly functioning. The last thing any driver wants is to need a charge while on a trip, and the port is damaged or not working properly. When a car is a pure-electric car, this becomes a major issue.

The Inverter

Every electric car is fitted with what is known as an inverter. The inverter is a vital part of the entire electrical system of an electric car. Without the inverter, the electric car would not work.

The main purpose of the inverter is to convert electrical energy. Why does an electric car need an inverter? The batteries that are used in an electric car use DC (direct current) energy. Without an inverter, this DC energy would be sent to the electric motor, where it would be useless.

The reason it would be useless is that an electric motor needs AC (alternating current) energy to run. So, the inverter works as a buffer between these two components of the electric car.

The DC energy generated by the batteries is sent into the inverter. Once it is in the inverter, it is converted from DC energy to AC energy. Once the DC energy is converted into AC energy, the inverter sends it to the electric motor, where it can be properly utilized.

There is also a component, similar to the inverter, in an electric car known as a DC/DC converter. This converter changes high-voltage DC power to low-voltage DC power, which is more suitable within an electric vehicle.

Electric Car Range

The components that comprise the inner workings of an electric car are intrinsically tied with the range of the car. However, it is important to understand what is meant by the range of an electric car.

The range of an electric car refers to how long–in miles–the car can run before needing to be recharged. Different electric cars have different ranges. Several factors affect the range of an electric vehicle.

  • The capacity of the battery. Each battery is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). The higher the number, the better range the car will have.
  • Road conditions. If you are driving in a very hilly area, the range of the vehicle will go down. It takes more energy to drive up and down hills than on flat land. Since more energy is used, the battery will get drained faster.
  • The car’s weight. When a vehicle is carrying more weight than normal, it will exert more energy, thus depleting its range.
  • The car’s tires. Tires should be at optimal air pressure. When a car’s tires are underinflated, even just a little, it can affect the range of the car.
  • Weather. While the air temperature will not directly affect the range of the car, it can cause drivers to use the heating and cooling features within the car, which can affect the range of the car. When using these features, you are drawing energy away from the battery and motor.
  • The age of the battery. Over time, the efficiency of an electric car’s battery will naturally deplete. This natural depletion will cause the range of the car to decrease.

It is important to consider these factors when thinking about the range of the electric car. While the kWh rating of its battery is the first indicating factor as to its range, this range can vary based on these other factors.

Optimizing an Electric Car’s Range

Luckily, there are ways to optimize an electric car’s range. While there are factors that affect how well an electric car adheres to its range, there are steps a driver can take to optimize that range.

For example, it is not advantageous for a driver to quickly accelerate while driving. This type of acceleration can negatively affect the car’s range because it will take up too much energy too quickly.

Some other ways a driver can optimize an electric car’s range include:

  • Plan routes ahead of time. Since the road conditions affect the range of an electric car, planning out the best route ahead of time is key. Avoiding hilly areas and poor road conditions is critical.
  • Only pack what is necessary. It is best to avoid too many people in the car or too many pieces of luggage. These things add weight to the car, which can lead to a lower range.
  • Check the tires before leaving. It is always best to check the tire pressure before you leave for a trip to make sure they are at optimal pressure.
  • Pre-heat the car. If it is very cold outside, it is best to run the heating system before leaving and while the car is still plugged in. This will avoid drawing energy away from the batteries and motor, leaving them fully charged for the journey.
  • Avoid parking in direct sunlight. When you park in direct sunlight, you are more likely to use the air conditioning, which can draw a lot of energy from the batteries. By parking in the shade, you will be more likely to just roll the windows down, preserving the energy of the car.

The range of a hybrid vehicle, also, is going to benefit from these optimizations. While a hybrid vehicle can switch to gasoline when necessary, you can increase its electric efficiency by optimizing its range.

Regenerative Braking

Electric cars also have a feature called “regenerative braking.” This feature helps create energy that, in turn, can be used to charge the battery as you are driving.

Regular brakes create friction when they are engaged, which creates heat. However, in a regular braking system, this heat is wasted. Regenerative braking uses the heat that is generated from engaging the brakes and uses it to charge the battery.

There are two times that this occurs when someone is driving an electric car. The first time is when the brakes are pressed by the driver’s foot, and the second time is when the brake pedal is released. In both instances, heat is created that is used as energy to charge the battery.

There are a few elements to keep in mind when it comes to regenerative braking systems that are used in electric cars.

  • The speed of the vehicle affects the quality of the charge.
  • How long the brake is engaged affects the quality of the charge.
  • Some energy is sent to the conventional brake system.

So, if the car is going faster and the brake is pressed for longer, a greater amount of heat is created. This higher level of heat creates more energy that can be used to recharge the battery. Therefore, the charge is much better than a slow, routine brake at a stop sign.

Additionally, some of the heat generated does go to the conventional braking system. The benefit here is that it both recharges the battery and slows down the car.

Charging an Electric Car

As mentioned earlier, the charging port of an electric car is where the external supply of electricity is inserted to “fuel” or recharge the car. However, charging an electric car is not just about the charging port itself.

Charging an electric car is how you keep from having a dead car. Now, the regenerative charging brake system helps charge the battery a little bit, but it is not enough to sustain a full trip. At some point, you will have to recharge your battery properly.

When you recharge the battery in an electric car, you are increasing its range. When you need to recharge the battery, the range has been depleted, hence why you need to charge. It is important to know how the range will increase as you drive, especially if you are in the middle of a trip. You need proper calculations, so you know you will reach your destination after charging. 

Consider the range you gain from the following charging amount per hour.

  • You can receive up to 15 miles in range when you are charging at 3.7 kW per hour.
  • You can receive up to 30 miles in range when you are charging fast at 7 kW per hour.
  • You can receive up to 90 miles in range when you are charging fast at 22kW per hour.
  • You can receive up to 90 miles (in half an hour) when you are charging rapidly at 50 kW.
  • You can receive up to 200 miles (in half an hour) when you are charging rapidly at 150 kW.

It depends on the strength of the charge and the type of charging you are using. For an electric vehicle, there are three levels of charging you can employ to charge the vehicle.

Types of Chargers

As mentioned, there are three levels of chargers for an electric car. They range from less power to the most power. Typically, the higher level charger you use, the faster you can charge your electric car.

  • The first level of chargers is when you simply plug your electric car into a wall socket at home. This will give the least gain in range, but it is good for charging your car at home for short trips around town.
  • The second level of charger is a special type of charger that can give up to 240 volts of power to your battery. These can be used at home or at charging stations you may encounter. These will give you a mid-level gain in range.
  • The third level of charger is the fastest and strongest charger available to use. They can charge your battery rapidly in 30 minutes, but they cannot be used at home. Instead, you will only find level three chargers in public charging stations. They may also require a higher fee than normal.

When you know which level of charger you are using, you can gauge the amount of  range you will gain. It is good to know when you need to charge your vehicle on the road.

Charging Speeds of Electric Cars

The amount of time it takes to charge your electric car is also important to consider. You already know how much range you can gain with different chargers, but how long will it take you to get there?

It depends on the model and make of your electric car as to how long it takes. For example, a Nissan LEAF will take 11 hours to charge via a level one charger at 3.7 kWh, but a Tesla will take up to 21 hours on the same charger.

It is also important to note the factors that can affect the charge time of an electric car. Some of these factors include the size of the battery and the maximum charging rate of the car.

There is also something called “top-up charging.” This is when the battery is not completely empty, but the driver charges the battery anyway. Usually, this is done when the car is parked during the day or at home at night. This ensures the car is always fully charged.

Of course, charging stations will have higher level chargers–though it is important to note that not all-electric cars can handle level three chargers. Regardless, some cars can be fully charged in four to six hours via a 22 kWh charger.

Conclusion

Electric cars use electricity from an external source, usually from the grid, to power an electric motor within the car. This electric motor supplies converted energy to power the wheels and other elements of the car.

While electric cars do not have the same amount of moving parts as gasoline-powered cars, the components that are utilized are vital to the efficiency and performance of the car.

As these vehicles are gaining in popularity and will continue to do so, it is important to understand how they work and how drivers can optimize their performance.

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