Editorial Feature

What is an Electric Car?

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Image Credit: Elnur/Shutterstock.com

Article updated on 18/02/20 by Mihaela Dimitrova and Laura Thomson

Almost every appliance that we use daily is powered by electricity, from mobile phones and laptops to washing machines and fridge-freezers. However, people were initially slow to embrace the concept of the electric car, although recent years have seen it rise in popularity as the benefits become more apparent, especially as the worldwide use of fossil fuels declines amid concerns over global warming.

Below, we explore the theory behind electric vehicles (EVs) and the advantages and disadvantages of using them.

How Do Electric Cars Work?

An electric vehicle, to the untrained eye, looks the same as its conventional, petrol-fueled counterpart. The essential difference is that under the hood of the car is an electric motor powered by a lithium battery, instead of a petrol or diesel engine. This is usually connected to the wheels via a transmission, although some electric cars have motors in each wheel, bypassing the need for a transmission.

The amount of power is regulated by a controller, which gives energy to the electric motor in accordance with the drivers use of the accelerator. The energy the car uses is stored in a rechargeable battery.

Another noticeable difference is the lack of a gearbox, as electric motors will work efficiently at a large range of speeds.

How Do You Fuel an Electric Car?

An electric car is fueledin the same way as your mobile phone-by plugging it into an electricity supply and charging the battery. This is achieved by a charging cable being attached to the connector on the car (often hidden from site) at one end and a power supply at the other.

It is easy to set up an EV charging point at home, although it will require its own circuit and it is strongly recommended that a qualified electrician performs a safety check on the homes electricity supply before proceeding. Some companies, such as Rolls Royce, are pioneering wireless charging. In early 2020, British firm Connected Kerb announced its trial of wireless car chargers with alternating electromagnetic fields that work when a car is parked on top. The technology is being investigated by OEMs for current and future car models, and is thought to be a positive move in the industry to de-clutter parking bays and charge points. 

Public Refueling

Public refueling of EVs is becoming more common every day, especially in big cities. In the USA, the best places to currently own an electric car are Austin, Denver, L.A., New York, and Orlando. In the UK, there are now around 1,000 more electric charging points than traditional petrol stations, with 9,300 electric charging points for vehicles situated around the country. This boost in electric charging stations indicates that there is a strong acceleration of the adoption of EVs among UK drivers.

A photo of a typical recharging station. Image Credit: US Department Of Energy.

The main factors in determining where an electric refueling station will appear near you include local council support and electricity network capacity. Refueling stations are also starting to become more common in workplaces so that people can leave their cars on charge while they are at work.

Users of electric vehicles simply park their cars near the charging station, plug in the available charging cable and wait until the car is charged.

Click here to view a discussion on refueling an electric car in a public place.

For a more in-depth insight on how to go about planning and installing a public or private charging, click here to view a webinar by Plug In America.

Charging Times of Electric Cars

The time it takes to fully charge an electric car can vary depending on battery size and power supply, but on average, a full home charge will take approximately six hours. The battery can be charged for any length of time, in accordance with the length of the journey, just as there is no need to always have a full tank of petrol.

The time it takes for a car to become fully charged is between 30 minutes and 12 hours. A typical electric car with a 60 kWh battery takes around 8 hours to charge from empty to full using a 7 kW charging point. For convenience, drivers often top up their battery during traveling, while many cars are able to add up to 100 miles of range in around 35 minutes using a 50 kW rapid charger.

As a guide, for the 5-door hatchback Vauxhall Ampera, charging takes about six hours, whereas the tiny Renault Twizy takes around 3.5 hours to go from flat to full. In 2019, Tesla announced that its Model 3 is the fastest charging EV in the world. The model is able to connect to a 200 kW European ulta-fast charger, which adds around 850 miles of range per hour. A complete recharge using the ultra-fast charger takes 20 minutes. 

Long Journeys in Electric Cars

On average, electric vehicles have shorter ranges than petrol-driven vehicles and can typically go for around 100-200 miles per full charge. This is ample for most journeys, but people may still worry about being caught short.

An elegant solution to this concern has been devised by Vauxhall. The new Ampera, which has been awarded European Car Of The Year 2012 has a back-up petrol generator which extends your travel by up to 360 miles. Other manufacturers are also working on making improvements to the maximum possible journey length, including Tesla, which, in 2020, began to introduce its Tesla Roadster with a possible 620-mile range. 

Does An Electric Car Feel Different to Drive?

There are differences in the feel of driving an electric car. Some of these are positive, some are more negative, but all will take some time to adjust to.

The lack of noise is one of the most noticeable differences, with electric cars producing very little noise at even high speeds, both inside and outside of the vehicle.

The top speed of electric cars is usually relatively low, often less than 100Mph. However, the acceleration is great because revving up’ is not required. This means quick acceleration even from a standing start, making EVs perfect for city driving.

Are Electric Cars Safe?

One major safety advantage is that electric vehicles do not carry gasoline, which reduces the chance of fires. However, Li-ion batteries have also been known to set on fire and even occasionally explode.

Many large companies are making every effort to make the new fuel systems as safe as possible. Here Fully Charged explain what Volvo is doing to address the safety of new electric cars.

The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy stated that EVs undergo the same rigourous testing conventional cars have to go through, while they also require EV-specific testing for limiting chemical spills, battery security during crashes and isolating the chassis from the high-voltage system to prevent electric shocks. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy also indicated that EVs have a lower center of gravity than conventional cars, making them less likely to roll over. 

A safety concern is the lack of noise emitted from them. Pedestrians are less likely to hear them coming than a conventional vehicle, which has led the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate ways to alleviate this issue. The option of many EVs emitting audible sounds at low speeds has been made available in certain car models such as the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf.

Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars are a mix between a fully electric car and a traditional petrol car. They are powered by a combination of both a petrol engine and an electric motor.

These have been available since the mid-1990s in various forms, such as the famous Toyota Prius.

Extensive articles discussing hybrid cars can be found at the following links:

Environmental Impact of Electric Cars

One of the main factors that persuades people to buy an electric car is the reduced environmental impact as they do not emit greenhouse gases. Even when factoring in the construction of the cars and the electricity used to run them, the amount of CO2 emitted by an EV over its lifetime should be around 15-40% less than that of a conventional car. However, a study published in Energy Procedia in 2017 concluded that CO2 emissions from the production of an EV are 59% higher than those from the production of internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV).

Another issue is how the batteries will be disposed of when they become of less use. Currently, there is no standard process for battery recycling. However, car manufacturers such as Volkswagen have introduced a 2019 scheme, which will see 97% of all raw materials used in new EV batteries being reused by 2040.

Furthermore, using renewable power to power EVs is crucial to ensuring they are as clean as possible. In 2019, windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro plants generated more electricity than the combined output from coal, oil, and gas power stations, which is a key turning point for the future of 100% renewable electric vehicles.

How Much Does An Electric Car Cost?

As with traditional cars, prices vary a lot, however, recent years have seen prices fall. In addition, studies have shown that they are cheaper to run, so after several years an electric car becomes cheaper than a conventional one.

In general, electric cars are slightly more expensive at the moment to purchase new. A brand new Mitsubishi I can be purchased from US$29125 and a new Vauxhall Ampera will set you back around US$50616.

Are There Any Perks To Owning An Electric Car?

Some governments and councils are making it worth peoples while to own an electric car, with various grants available and some taxes which are not applicable.

In the UK, a grant of up to £3500 is available for purchasing an electric car. The government has also announced that if an electric van is purchased that meets the governments criteria, up to 20% off the original cost can be received. This is a very good incentive for businesses that are looking to become more sustainable.

Grants are also available for installing your own home charging station.

Among the taxes that electric cars are completely exempt from are vehicle excise duty, fuel duty, company car tax, and fuel benefit charge.

Please visit your local governments website for a full description of what you are entitled to as an electric car owner in your region.

The real monetary benefit of owning an electric car is in the running costs. The Mitsubishi I can be charged to run for 1200 miles on a measly $350 on certain tariffs. The British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association has calculated that the cost per mile of most electric vehicles will be around 2-4p per mile. This is compared to 10-14p per mile for a conventional engine.

Furthermore, because EVs have fewer moving parts compared to petrol-driven vehicles money is saved on maintenance.

You can calculate how much it will cost you to drive an electric car at the following site: http://www.befrugal.com/tools/electric-car-calculator/

References and Further Reading

G.P. Thomas

Written by

G.P. Thomas

Gary graduated from the University of Manchester with a first-class honours degree in Geochemistry and a Masters in Earth Sciences. After working in the Australian mining industry, Gary decided to hang up his geology boots and turn his hand to writing. When he isn't developing topical and informative content, Gary can usually be found playing his beloved guitar, or watching Aston Villa FC snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

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