Clean Tech 101

What Is An Electric Car?

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Almost every appliance that we use daily is powered by electricity, from mobile phones and laptops, to washing machines and fridge-freezers. The idea of having to fill these machines with a sticky brown liquid so that they will run is an absurd concept. And yet vehicles (and cars specifically) have been conspicuously slow in embracing electricity as a main power source. The majority of people are all too happy to continue chugging along in machines powered by fossil fuels.

It is only a matter of time until this changes though, as running an ever increasing number of vehicles on an ever diminishing finite resource is obviously a road to nowhere.

This article will help you get in on the ground level of the electric vehicle revolution, by explaining the theory behind electric vehicles (EVs) and the current advantages and disadvantages of using them.

How Does It Work?

An electric vehicle, to the untrained eye, looks exactly the same as its conventional, petrol-fuelled 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 driver’s use of the accelerator. The energy the car uses is stored in a rechargeable battery.

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

How Do You Fuel An Electric Car?

An electric car is ‘fuelled’ in the same way as your mobile phone-by plugging it in to 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, though it will require its own circuit and it is strongly recommended that a qualified electrician performs a safety check on the home’s electricity supply before proceeding. Some companies, such as Rolls Royce, are pioneering wireless charging.

Public Refuelling

Public refuelling 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, London, Newcastle and Milton Keynes have been selected for the Plugged-In Places scheme and these cities will attempt to have 11 000 recharging points by the end of 2012.

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

Main factors in determining where an electric refuelling station will appear near you include local council support and electricity network capacity. Refuelling stations are also starting to become more common in work places, so that people can leave their car on charge whilst they are at work.

It is extremely simple and doesn’t require an extensive explanation-simply park your car near the charging station, plug in the available charging cable and wait until the car is charged.

Click here to view a discussion on refuelling 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

The time it takes to fully charge an electric car can vary depending on battery size and power supply, but an average, full home charge will take approximately 6 hours. Of course, the battery can be charged for any length of time, in accordance with the length of journey, just as there is no need to have a full tank of petrol when nipping to the corner shop.

As a guide, for the 5 door hatchback Vauxhall Ampera charging takes about 6 hours, whereas the tiny Renault Twizy takes around 3.5 hours to go from flat to full.

Will I Reach My Destination?

Electric vehicles have shorter ranges than petrol-driven vehicles and can typically go for around 100miles 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 just been awarded European Car Of The Year 2012 has a back-up petrol generator which extends your travel by up to 360miles

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’ isn’t required. This means quick acceleration even from a standing start, making EVs perfect for city driving.


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. Click here to view a great video from Fully Charged on EV safety and in particular what Volvo is doing to address it.

There is also the issue of what is to be done with the Li-ion batteries once they become unusable.

Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars are, as the name suggests, 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-1990’s in various forms, such as the famous Toyota Prius.

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

Environmental Impact

One of the main factors that persuades people to buy an electric car is the reduced environmental impact. Electric cars do not give out any tail pipe emissions. 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 it’s lifetime should be around 15-40% less than that of a conventional car.

One issue that hasn’t been resolved however is how the batteries will be disposed of when they become of less use.

How Much Does An Electric Car Cost?

Just like traditional cars prices will vary a lot, but they are extremely competitive and in the long run can be much cheaper to own.

In general, electric cars are slightly more expensive at the moment to purchase new. A brand new Mitsubishi I can be purchased from 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.

"The electrification of the automobile is inevitable..." Bob Lutz, Vice Chairman, General Motors

In the UK, a grant of up to £5000 is available for purchasing an electric car. The government has also announced that if an electric van is purchased that meets the government’s 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 government’s 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:


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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