How do electric vehicles work?

Electric cars use an on-board battery to store electrical energy, which is recharged by connecting it to an electricity supply (usually the 'mains'). When required, energy is drawn from the electric-cells and converted to motive power by the use of one or more electric motors.

Battery and motor technology

how do electric vehicles workA battery is constructed from stacking individual electro-chemical 'cells', each of which produces a voltage (typically 2V) that is the result of a chemical reaction within the cell.

Although the lead-acid battery was the most common electric vehicle battery until the late 1990s, the latest generation of rechargeable cells includes lithium-ion (Li-Ion) and lithium-polymer (Li-Poly) cells. These provide a significant improvement in performance and vehicle range and are now preferred by most electric vehicle manufacturers.

First generation electric vehicles used direct current (DC) motors. More recent models tend to convert the direct current to alternating current (AC) using an inverter, which then drives an induction motor. These have increased efficiency, a higher specific power (per kg) and require less maintenance. However, the disadvantages include higher costs and increased complexity of the controller, which needs to both act as an inverter and regulate the motor's speed.

Some electric vehicles also use 'regenerative braking', which tops up the battery when the brakes are applied – this can increase vehicle range by as much as 20%.

Driving an electric car

driving an electric carDriving an electric car is a very different experience to using a conventional (combustion engine) vehicle. Forward drive is usually selected in much the same way as in an automatic – and another similarity is that there is no clutch pedal.

On depressing the accelerator, an electric car initially moves in almost total silence, which can be a little disconcerting. As the speed picks up, the small amount of 'engine' noise that can be heard is drowned out by wind and tyre noise, which become more noticeable as the speed increases.

Most electric vehicles have excellent acceleration and high torque (especially at lower speeds) and are more than capable of holding their own in city-driving conditions. Although some models are designed as city cars and are speed limited to around 40-50 mph, most of the newer high quality models can be easily reach 60-70 mph on a motorway.

Electric cars can also be high performance vehicles – the Tesla roadster is capable of 130 mph and goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4 seconds!

Current electric cars have a range and performance that is adequate for many driving applications including: city driving, commuting, regular drive cycles (such as delivery routes), short range trips (up to 100 miles per day) and where only zero or low emission vehicles are allowed access. As a result, electric cars are most suited for use as private cars for city use, for commuting trips, in commercial fleets (for small loads), and as company 'pool' cars.

Peter Thomas

Author:Peter Thomas
Date Updated:10th Mar 2015

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