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What is an electric vehicle and how does it work?

Everything you need to know about electric cars and how they work...

What is an electric vehicle and how does it work?

Electric cars are the future with the UK Government banning the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 (petrol- or diesel-hybrids have until 2035).

So, if we’re all going to be driving EVs in the future, it makes sense that we give you the lowdown on what it’s like to own and drive an EV.

Within this guide we’ll give you a brief overview of all the key information.

A brief history of the electric car

Let’s start at the beginning. Electric cars are the future but they’re also the past. Way back in the 1800s, electric cars shared the roads with their petrol-engined siblings, just like today.

While Carl Benz (of Mercedes fame) was busy filing the first patent for a motor car in 1886, it was actually two years earlier when British inventor Thomas Parker, who also electrified the London Underground, was driving around in Wolverhampton in the first production electric car powered by rechargeable batteries.

Over the next decade, electric cars popped up in Germany and then in the US, where the Electrobat was used as a New York Taxi, with a top speed of 20mph and a range of 25 miles. In 1899, the rocket-shaped Jamais Content hit 105.88kph as technology advanced and world records tumbled.

However, the discovery of oil, and the vast amounts of it, at the turn of the century sparked the transition to combustion engines, plus Henry Ford pioneered the mass production of cars on assembly lines and developed the affordable Model T. And the world never looked back.

That is, at least, until the 60s and 70s and a slew of oil crises, when the topic of electric cars found its way back onto the agenda. Nothing much happened until the 1990s, when a few next-generation EV prototypes emerged from leading manufacturers before the lithium-ion battery was developed and changed the game forever, bringing performance and range to electric cars like the Nissan LEAF and Tesla Roadster.

Leading us to the present day and the wealth of electric cars and vans that would make Mr Parker proud.

What is an electric car?

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 is what propels the car. We’re used to seeing internal combustion engines (ICE) – the big lumps of metal, in an engine bay, usually at the front of the car.

In an all-electric vehicle, that’s all gone, along with the gearbox, the exhaust system and the fuel tank.

Instead, there’s a battery park and motor – and that’s pretty much it. We’re simplifying a little of course but consider this, an ICE vehicle contains more than 2,000 moving parts. An EV? Around 20. That means they’re simpler to understand, use and maintain.

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.

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.

What is the range of an electric car?

The range of an electric car is simply how far the vehicle can go on a full battery charge – a bit like how long your smartphone lasts but measured in miles rather than hours.

There are many factors that determine range – the most obvious being the size of your lithium-ion battery. Size really does matter here as the bigger the battery, the further you can go before needing to recharge.

Since the first EV in 2010, batteries have got bigger and therefore range has increased, with the average real-world range now standing at just over 200 miles. Plenty for most people’s journeys for a week or two.

You’ll have seen us refer to real-world range. This is different to the manufacturer quoted numbers, which are conducted during tests known as the Worldwide Harmonised Light Vehicle Test Procedure (WLTP). In reality, it’s hard to achieve these figures due to a range of reasons: temperature, speed, acceleration, terrain, battery age and cabin weight.

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