Everything you need to know about electric cars
In recent years, the motoring industry has been through more changes than it has for decades. Electric cars have spurred on changes which look set to pave the way to a greener, slicker future. But what exactly do you know about them? Get ready to go on an informational journey as we steer you through everything you need to know about electric vehicles (EVs), from how they work to the true strength of their green credentials. We’ll look at:
How do electric cars work?
Unlike petrol or diesel cars, which run off a traditional internal combustion engine (or ICE), electric cars are powered by an electrically charged battery pack. This works to power the motor and turn the wheels. Instead of being reliant on common methods of fuel, such as petrol and diesel, these vehicles depend on electricity for power.
Electric car owners can supply power via a wall socket, like those used for other electrical appliances, or from a dedicated charging unit. They just plug the car’s charge port to a source of electricity and the battery receives power that is stored inside the vehicle.
A variant on the electric car is the hybrid, which uses a combination of electricity and liquid fuels. Read more about hybrid cars.
Completely electric vehicles don’t have tailpipes, and therefore produce no tailpipe emissions. In some ways, they’re seen as more environmentally friendly than other cars and are therefore chosen by many eco-conscious drivers. Electric vehicles are also significantly quieter than cars powered by petrol or diesel. They tend to only give off sound largely when they travel at moderate to high speeds, due to wind resistance or tyre noises. Even then, regular cars are still considered far louder.
Similar to regular vehicles, electric cars have a thermal cooling system. Their batteries, containing lithium ions, are prone to heating when used – just like a regular engine – and therefore need to be kept at the correct operating temperature. The same goes for the power electronics and other key components. EVs also contain a regulator that makes sure the energy levels produced and consumed by the car are consistent. This protects the battery from burning out.
The history of the electric car
Did you know that electric cars date back to the early 19th century? Most people think EVs are a recent innovation, but that’s not entirely true. In the 1830s, the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson built an electric carriage powered by non-rechargeable cells and set the wheels in motion for EVs. Towards the end of the century, the American innovator William Morrison built the first working electric car. The years that followed saw EVs rising in popularity throughout the US, and by 1900 over a quarter of new vehicles produced were electrically powered.
Enter one Henry Ford. In 1908, he invented the petrol-powered Model T car, which proved incredibly popular across the United States. Consumers were drawn towards longer distance vehicles and the availability of petrol. And some people were put off electric vehicles by their comparative lack of horsepower. As a result, petrol-driven cars became an almost universal norm in 20th century motoring.
Flash forward to the Oil Shock of the 1970s, and concerns over the rising price of oil-based fuels were widespread. Conversations about the benefits of electric vehicles began to resurface. Two decades later in the 1990s, many major marques produced their first electrically-fuelled models. The first mass-produced EV was technically a hybrid. The Toyota Prius, powered by electricity but with the option of using petrol after a certain point, was brought out in 1997.
Since then, different governments across the world have introduced measures to try and promote the use of electric cars. Brands like Tesla, smart, Renault and Nissan have manufactured sporty, compact and subcompact models into the market, and other companies have since followed suit with all-electric and hybrid models of their own.
What is a hybrid car?
Hybrid vehicles use more than one power source. A hybrid petrol car runs on an electric motor and a petrol engine, while a hybrid diesel car is powered by an electric motor and a diesel engine. There are two different types of hybrids on the road – conventional hybrids and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs):
- Conventional hybrids run electrically, providing the car is travelling at a low speed. When the driver accelerates further, the engine runs off both electricity and either petrol or diesel.
- Plug-in hybrids can be connected to an electricity outlet to recharge, but PHEVs can be charged on the move through an external power source. They have the same engine as conventional hybrids, although they can also travel longer distances solely powered by electricity.
In terms of key differences from fully-electric cars, hybrids are generally available at lower price points and don’t bring the same range anxiety issues. And as you’d expect, hybrid vehicles have lower C02 emissions than conventional cars, but still give off more than an all-electric vehicle.
That means for some people, EVs represent a chance to use a cleaner, greener method of transportation. But are they really that eco-friendly?
Are electric cars good for the environment?
The widespread perception that electric cars are good for the environment is true to a large extent. EVs are less dependent on fossil fuels than other road vehicles. Although you have to recharge their battery using electricity – which generally involves fossil fuels at present – electric cars are eco-friendlier as cars running on electric batteries give off zero tailpipe emissions.
As well as this, electric vehicles are more recyclable than their petrol and diesel predecessors. Certain models are made with reusable air ducts, fabrics and dashboards, further enhancing their green footprint.
In turn, there are some environmental disadvantages to electrically powered cars. They will typically be recharged from the national electricity grid, so they will contribute some toxic emissions while charging. This can mean increased air pollution, although the scale is not comparable to ICE-powered cars.
Electric cars are powered by lithium ion batteries which can have a shorter lifespan and less recyclable. Battery manufacturers such as Toyota are making moves to change this, however, producing smaller, lighter batteries with increased charge capacity and vehicle range.
In short, the environmental impact of electric cars is better than traditional petroleum-fuelled cars. But how do EVs compare when the environment impacts on their performance?
How EVs handle hot and cold weather
Electric cars in hot weather
As electric vehicle batteries don’t deliver the same range as conventional cars, their performance can be compromised in extreme weather. Warm temperatures can put a strain on battery and cause it to lose power which results in the car covering less ground.
How to use your electric car in hot weather
- Air condition the car while it’s still charging, so it keeps cool and doesn’t use excess battery.
- Leave the window open to let cool air in – as long as it’s safe to do so.
- Accelerate and brake smoothly. Maintain a certain speed on the power gauge and without accelerating above it: this can also help to preserve engine life.
- Park in the shade whenever possible, to minimise the electric car’s automatic thermal management system being a drain on the battery.
Electric cars in cold weather
Cold weather can affect all cars – diesel, petrol, hybrid and electric. In terms of EVs, their batteries can become less efficient in cold conditions, because temperatures directly impact on the electric motor, which struggles to convert electricity into motion. Bear in mind that this also happens to petrol-fuelled cars: when engine oil gets colder, it influences the vehicle’s fuel economy.
As a result, the range of an electric car may drop along with the thermometer. Studies in Northern America and Canada saw EV ranges decline, with batteries covering just 50-60 miles in cold weather, compared to the normal 80-mile range. But that should be fine for short range commutes and daily city use, especially if you run your car effectively.
How to use your electric car in cold weather
- Heat your car while it is charging on grid energy. Also known as preconditioning, this can be done with apps for some models of EV.
- Accelerate and brake smoothly. As with hot weather, accelerating, speeding and braking too quickly are all great ways to drain your battery.
- Get heated seats. If you live in a cold climate, you may want to look at heated seating options, as they’re more energy efficient than heating your car’s whole cabin.
- Wrap up warm. Old school but effective, the best way to protect your battery and stay warm is layer your clothing and wear a hat, scarf and driving gloves.
- Park in an enclosed or heated space. Bonus tip: your battery will also charge faster in a warmer location.
Ultimately, with a little care and consideration, your electric vehicle will safely take you all the places a liquid fuelled car can. And it’s easy enough to keep your EV in roadworthy shape.
What’s involved in an electric car servicing?
Servicing an electric vehicle is an entirely different prospect to servicing an ICE-powered car. There’s no need for fluids or fluid disposal systems, as EVs don’t operate on a power steering fluid. Additionally, extraction equipment isn’t required as electric vehicles don’t have any gases requiring extraction.
The anatomy of electric cars comprises fewer moving components than those in a diesel or petrol vehicle, so in theory there are fewer parts to fail. Brakes don’t need serviced as regularly, for instance, thanks to regenerative braking, a process which takes energy from the battery system and stores it for later use. Good news for electronic car drivers – intervals between maintenance can be up to twice as long as for petrol or diesel cars.
One part of the vehicle will require a lot more care, though – the battery. This part has a comparatively limited lifespan and will need more attention than batteries for regular car engines. That said, lots of marques offer warranties which cover the battery in the event of damage or wear.
Just be aware that the differing systems in electronic vehicles mean some mechanics won’t be able to service them. If you’re considering going electric, seek out a dealer who sells EVs. They’ll be more likely to advise on your car’s servicing and maintenance needs. And of course, as the electric vehicle market expands and evolves, garages and mechanics will adapt to meet consumer needs.
What does the future hold for the electric car industry?
As electric cars drop in price and increase their range, they’re set to become an increasingly common sight on UK roads. The government plans to ban sales of all diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040, pushing more drivers towards buying electrically powered vehicles. Yet there’s a possibility that the country’s transition to EVs may happen even sooner, as financial subsidies and falling costs continue to sway the public.
Household brands such as BMW, Volkswagen, Ford and Volvo have made pledges to become greener in the coming years, by making more plug-in hybrids or placing billion-pound investments in the production of fully-electric vehicles. These models are set to have improved performance – more torque and better handling – which will appeal to a wider market. Major supermarket chains such as Lidl and Sainsbury’s now often have outdoor charging points for electric vehicles.
Batteries that can hold more charge and allow longer-distance travel are being manufactured more frequently thanks to global investment. As batteries become cheaper, EVs are expected to fall in price, too. As electric cars are comparatively lightweight, future models are potentially set to be faster than conventional diesel or petrol models.
Combine this with the push towards driverless cars, advanced by tech companies like Tesla and Google, and there’s every chance that EVs will make the streets look quite different in 15 years’ time.
Thinking of pulling the plug on petrol and going electric? Read our guide to buying an electric car and find out if an EV could work for you.