In less than a decade, electric vehicles will be the only new cars you’ll be able to buy in the UK. The British government has declared its intention to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars in 2030 (petrol- or diesel-electric hybrids have until 2035), so before you know it, we’re all going to be driving EVs.
And as we’re all going to be driving EVs in the future, it’s only right that we give you the lowdown on what it’s like to own and drive an EV.
What is an electric vehicle?
At the risk of stating the obvious, an electric vehicle is not like a conventional petrol or diesel car. It may look the same from the outside, but under the metal there are big differences.
The biggest difference is what propels the car. We’re used to seeing internal combustion engines (ICE), big lumps of metal, in an engine bay, usually at the front of the car.
In a pure electric vehicle, that’s all gone, along with the gearbox, the exhaust system and the petrol tank.
Instead of the traditional, old-fashioned internal combustion engine, what you have is a battery pack, a motor and, that’s pretty much it.
Yes, there are other bits, but while the drivetrain in an ICE vehicle contains more than 2,000 moving parts, the drivetrain in an EV contains around 20.
Everything is a lot simpler and easier to use and maintain in an EV.
How does an electric car work?
The most important part in a fully electric car is the battery. It supplies the power to the motor to move an electric vehicle.
The motor is the part of an EV that takes the electrical energy in the battery and uses it to drive the wheels around. It does the same job as the engine in an ICE car, but it only has one moving part – a real contrast to the thousands of parts in an engine.
How does the battery in an electric car work?
When we talk about the range of an EV, that’s all about how far the power in the battery will take the car. It is also, at the moment, by far the expansive component in an EV and the reason why electric cars are more expensive than comparable ICE cars.
Most EVs currently on sale use lithium-ion batteries, which is the same type of battery that you’ll find in a smartphone or laptop – but a lot bigger and able to store a lot more energy. Lithium-ion is the preferred form of battery chemistry (the chemicals inside the battery) because they have a better power-to-weight ratio than other battery types, so you get more power out of a lithium-ion battery than, for example, a nickel-cadmium battery. That said, alternatives are being considered and we’ll see battery technology develop over the next few years.
Batteries are made up of individual cells, packaged together in modules, with a number of modules then combined to make the battery pack, which is fitted as one unit in an EV.
When you buy your new EV, you might find that you have a choice of battery pack size. The size of the pack will be expressed in kWh, or kilowatt hours, a way of describing how much power (the kilowatt part) will use over a period of time (the hour bit). The more kWh in a battery, the more power it will have on tap. If you have a relatively small EV with a battery over 60kWh, for example, you can expect a range of 250-300 miles. A larger, heavier car, however, might have the same size battery, but the range won’t be the same, because it has to use more energy to shift the bigger car.
Battery size isn’t the only factor in how far an EV can go on a single charge – there’s all kinds of clever software that the brainiacs working for car companies (and their suppliers) are developing, which somehow manage to wring more range out of a battery – but, as with many things in life, bigger is often better.
We all know that EV batteries are rechargeable, but did you know that you can also help recharge your car’s battery by the way you drive?
Braking, for example, is a good way of recapturing energy that would otherwise be lost. Electric-powered cars recuperate some of the energy that is normally lost in braking, feeding it back into the main battery to increase the range. This is known as regenerative braking. Many EVs have controls that allow you to adjust how much energy can be reclaimed by regenerative braking. You’ll be able to feel how this works when you take your foot of the accelerator: the highest brake setting will mean that you will feel the car immediately slow down, as soon as you lift your right foot, while lower settings will do the same, but the car won’t slow down as quickly.
How does the motor work in an electric car?
Many EVs just have the one motor, driving one set of wheels. However, EVs with a bit more power on tap can sometimes have two motors – one on each axle, driving the front and rear wheels, which means that it has four-wheel drive.
The electric motor also has one other important advantage over an ICE engine, in its power delivery. A combustion engine has to build up to spinning at several thousand revs, when it delivers its maximum power. An electric motor, on the other hand, will deliver maximum force the very moment it starts spinning, which is the instant you press the accelerator pedal. This instant acceleration when driving an EV can make it great fun to drive.
The other aspect of the way an EV works is that there is only one gear, so the only time you have to shift is when reversing or parking. The single gear offers a good blend of acceleration and top speed, so it can cope with every driving eventuality.