How Do Electric Cars Work?

Electric vehicles are high-tech and great for the environment. Here's what makes them go.

Team LemonadeTeam Lemonade

Puff, puff, puff, puff…there goes another gas-powered car, blasting pollutants and toxins into the environment. 

Driving is a mundane part of everyday life, so it’s easy to forget that fuel-based vehicles are burning harsh byproducts while expelling greenhouse gases. Those carbon-dioxide emissions are not only harmful to the environment—they also put human health at risk. Sorry to be a bummer.

The good news? There’s an alternative.

It’s no wonder more and more car companies are launching electric car models. While Tesla is the brand most popularly associated with electric vehicles (EVs), Audi, Ford, and Kia are other well-known car manufacturers who have decided to dive into the electric vehicle space. Even Ford pick-up trucks are being reimagined as EVs.

You don’t have to be tech-savvy or rich to whip around town while reducing your fossil fuel emissions in an environment-friendly car. Drivers with all kinds of budgets can find an electric car that falls in their ideal price range. 

But how do electric cars actually work? We’ll get into the details below, and also help you decide if an EV is right for your lifestyle.

Feel free to skip ahead if you’re only interested in the following:

What is an electric car?

Electric cars are vehicles with a large battery that use electricity to power the motor instead of traditional gasoline. Electric cars are fully powered by electricity whereas hybrid cars run on a combination of electricity and conventional fuel.

Similar to gas cars, EVs can only go so many miles before they need to be refueled. However, since EVs are fueled by electricity, they need to be recharged. On average, EVs can run for 250 miles per charge, though certain Tesla models can travel up to 350 miles per charge.  

How do electric cars work? 

EVs have a unique battery that stores electricity to power the motor, and can simply be plugged in to recharge. 

These vehicles do not require an internal combustion engine to run because they operate strictly with electric motors and rechargeable batteries. They’re also gentler on the ears. While internal combustion engines produce a loud, sometimes muffled sound due to the expansion of gas, EVs are much quieter because their motors aren’t burning up gas. 

Conventional gasoline vehicles use materials like petrol and diesel, containing harmful chemicals and toxic pollutants. Gas-powered cars and trucks emit so much carbon dioxide that our planet is feeling the negative effects. Compared to gas cars, electric cars are more environment-friendly due to the use of little or zero fossil fuels.

Electric vehicles not only save you money on gas and maintenance, but they also reduce carbon emissions. Because EVs do not utilize fossil fuels, that means they are not emitting air pollutants. 

Components of an electric car

The science of EVs can seem mysterious. With no engine, radiator, carburetor, or spark plugs, how do electric cars work? 

The components of an electric car are a little different than what your traditional vehicle uses to drive and operate.

EVs have a battery, motor, and charging port for optimal performance. Let’s break down the key components of an EV. 

Battery 

EVs run off of a lithium ion battery that powers the motor using stored electricity. 

The higher the electric output of the battery, measured in kilowatts, the higher the power range. Translation: With a higher maximum battery capacity, you will be able to drive longer distances in your EV. On average, an electric car uses 30 kW to travel 100 miles. 

Charge port

One of the most important components of electric cars is the charge port. Similar to your cell phone, without the charge port, the battery can’t recharge. 

The EV battery needs to receive external power to perform its duties. Charging stations or electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) source the battery juice. 

You can use a commercial or personal residence charging station to reload your battery. Household charging ports are beneficial for charging your electric car overnight. 

Electric drivetrain

A car’s drivetrain connects the engine to the wheels, which enables the vehicle to move. The drivetrain on EVs is powered by electricity to provide an emission-free system. 

Traditional combustion engines use multiple transmission lines instead of the powerhouse system used in EVs. In an EV, the motor and drivetrain share the same housing unit. That helps reduce the number of electric car components, optimize efficiency, and reduce the system’s weight.

In short, instead of using several systems for the transmission (as gas cars do), EVs utilize a single, streamlined system. 

Inverter

The inverter converts the electric current of the battery pack from a direct current (DC) to an alternating current (AC) to power the motor. 

Lithium ion batteries only accept DC power, but EVs require AC to function properly. 

The inverter controls the frequency of the AC power circulating to the electric vehicle’s motor, which manages the EV’s speed. 

Motor

Electric vehicles do not have a standard four-cylinder motor, and instead are powered by an electric traction motor. The motor operates on electricity received by the inverter. 

Electricity is sent to the electric car’s battery, moving along to the rotor, which then circulates the electric forces to the wheels. 

More electricity leads to smoother acceleration and deceleration. 

How do electric cars charge? 

Now that you know a little about how electric cars work, let’s go over the charging process. 

EV owners can fully charge their cars around town at any convenient charging stations, or they can purchase their own charging unit for their home. 

The different types of chargers are: 

  • Three-pin plug: A traditional three-prong plug that connects to any 13-amp socket
  • Socketed: Charging point connected with Type 1 or Type 2 EV-specific cables 
  • Tethered: A charge point that utilizes a cable attached with a Type 1 or Type 2 cable connector 

How long does it take to charge an electric car? 

The time it takes to charge an electric car ranges from 15 minutes to 40 hours, depending on your charging method, current battery level, and the weather. 

Some drivers can get back on the road after only 30 minutes of charging. However, most electric car drivers will need around 40 hours to charge a fully empty battery if they are using a three-prong plug. 

Severe weather changes can sometimes factor into your electric car charge time. Brutally cold temperatures can drastically add to your charging time, while scorching hot weather can affect the thermal management and overall efficiency of your vehicle due to higher chemical reactions in lithium ion batteries. 

Keep in mind that your electric vehicle has its own maximum charging rate that is static, so you might not save any time if you fuel your battery at a high-power charging station. 

Pros and cons of electric vehicles

While you’ll save money on fuel and may have less car maintenance with an EV, what about the initial cost and charging times? Before you go out and purchase an EV, it is important to understand the pros and cons of electric vehicles. 

Advantages of electric vehicles

  • Environment-friendly: One of the biggest advantages of electric vehicles is zero emissions, which drastically reduces smog and greenhouse gases. Electric cars mean cleaner air and overall better health for our planet. 
  • Savings on gas: Due to the use of electricity, you will save a significant amount of money on fuel. EV owners can expect to pay up to half the price for power charging than they would to fuel a gas-powered car.
  • Less maintenance: Electric vehicles have far fewer parts than your average car. You will never have to worry about getting an oil change or changing fuel filters. 
  • High performance: The most exciting advantage of electric vehicles is their high performance. Electric vehicle aficionados would argue that, with their quick acceleration and unmatched performance, they’re more fun to drive than traditional cars. Some vehicles can reach peak speeds in mere seconds! 

Disadvantages of electric vehicles

  • High initial cost: One of the most significant disadvantages of electric vehicles is the high initial cost. Electric cars cost less to operate and maintain, but the trade-off is the high purchase price. That being said, you might be eligible for a federal tax credit to help offset the cost. However, credit amounts can vary by location, car company, model, and year.
  • Finding charging stations: It’s no secret that you can find a gas station on almost every other street corner. Charging stations are far less prevalent, which can be tough if you are on the ultimate road trip vacation. It’s possible that you’ll come across a charging station only to find that its broken, or that a non-EV has parked in the station’s spot. And If your trip is mainly uphill, you might need to find a charger sooner than planned.
  • Time to charge: Filling up your car with gas can take two to three minutes, but charging your EV can take hours. The time will vary depending on the model of your car.
  • Problematic raw materials: While electric cars are more environment-friendly overall, they’re still produced using some problematic raw materials. While not as detrimental as fossil fuels, EVs use lithium ion cells to power their batteries, which are made of mined materials. Extracting the metals requires the use of smelting, which can emit harmful air pollutants like sulfur oxide. 

How to decide if an EV is right for you

Buying an electric vehicle is a huge investment. Before you jump into test drive mode, think long and hard about how electric cars work and if an EV is right for you. (We’ll get into the levels of charging stations a bit later, but before going through the flowchart below, know that the typical level 2 EV charger for your home costs around $TK.)

should i buy an electric car?

Let’s talk about charging levels

Ready to really nerd out? There are three levels for charging your electric vehicle: level 1, level 2, and level 3 EVSE charging. 

Level 1 charging

TL;DR: Level 1 charging provides the slowest type of charge and is best for drivers who will charge at their homes or won’t need to drive their EVs long distances.

Level 1 charging is the slowest type of EV charge and is used by most plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and some EVs. The level 1 charger is a three-prong plug with a standard 120-volt AC outlet. 

Level 1 charging equipment is used in household environments as opposed to commercial. Users can expect to receive an average of 1.3 kW to 2.4 kW power per hour, which is equivalent to roughly three to five miles of range for your EV. You can add 30-50 miles of EV range with an overnight charge, but an empty battery will take over 24 hours to charge fully.  

Level 2 charging

TL;DR: Level 2 chargers are best for drivers who need a faster charge, drive more miles, and want the flexibility to charge at their homes or in public places.

The most useful type of electric car charging is level 2, because it is the fastest for at-home use. 

Level 2 socketed and tethered charging equipment for electric cars uses 208 to 240 volts and can produce three to 19 kW of AC power. With this form of charging, your car can charge 18-28 miles per hour, and in four to eight hours, your EV can be fully charged. 

Almost every electric car and plug-in electric hybrid vehicle is compatible with level 2 charging. Users can install a level 2 charging system in their homes or visit a public electric vehicle wall charger location. 

Charging tip: Colder temperatures can increase your charge time, so plan accordingly if you are traveling. 

Level 3 EVSE charging

TL;DR: Level 3 EVSE chargers are best for drivers who need to recharge in a matter of minutes but due to their high price point, aren’t as common in public places or homes. 

Level 3 electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) is sometimes referred to as DC fast charging due to the fact that it can recharge a car in roughly 30 minutes. 

The combined socketed and tethered charging system rapidly recharges your EV an average of three to 20 miles of range per minute. This is the ideal situation for individuals on the go with speedy schedules. 

While level 1 and level 2 charging systems use alternating current, DC charging uses direct current. The higher voltage costs tens of thousands of dollars, which is why it’s rare to find one at apartment and condo complexes, and inside personal garages.

Types of electric cars

When discussing EVs, it’s important to understand the four main types of electric cars: battery electric vehicle (BEV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), and hydrogen electric vehicles (fuel cell). 

Let’s dive right in and see how these electric cars work and what makes them unique.  

Battery electric vehicle (BEV)

A battery electric vehicle (BEV) is categorized as a fully electric car powered exclusively by electricity. 

They have an electric car motor that draws current from the electric battery without the use of a conventional internal combustion engine. 

Since BEVs rely solely on electricity, they require larger-capacity electric car batteries and typically have a higher selling price. 

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV)

When you combine an electric car motor and battery with a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE), you create a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). 

The unique feature of PHEVs is they can switch the ICE off and run entirely on electric mode. PHEVs also have larger and more powerful battery packs and electric motors than standard HEVs. 

PHEV owners can choose between topping off with fuel or electricity. A PHEV can operate on gasoline alone if the electric battery isn’t charged, or they can use the battery charge if they run out of fuel. 

Hybrid electric vehicle (HEV)

A hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) uses a combination of fuel and electricity to satisfy drives who aren’t ready to commit to fully electric cars. 

HEV owners often use the electric features for stopping and accelerating and prefer to use the internal combustion engine when cruising down the freeway. When conditions are suitable, the electric motor will automatically activate and recharge through regenerative braking. 

Hybrid point: HEVs can only top off with traditional fuel and cannot be recharged like PHEVs and BEVs.   

Hydrogen electric vehicle (fuel cell)

Hydrogen electric vehicles (fuel cell) are similar to battery electric vehicles (BEV) in the sense that they only use electricity for power. 

The fuel cell electric vehicles create their own energy through a chemical reaction with the use of hydrogen. These cars can be filled with hydrogen and do not require a standard charging system for electricity.  

You don’t have to be clairvoyant to see that the future of the automobile industry is in electric cars. 

Tesla is producing record-breaking numbers, and popular manufacturers are aiming to create more cost-effective electric vehicles. 

As we enter 2022, here are a few trends in the EV industry you can expect to see. 

How do I protect my EV? 

It’s one thing to know how electric cars work, but it’s another to understand how to protect your EV. Consumers are quick to purchase an electric car for the environmental benefits, fuel-saving properties, and high performance without knowing the cost of insurance. EVs are huge investments, which is why you need to protect your vehicle at all costs. 

The higher initial price of an electric car results in a more expensive car insurance plan due to high replacement costs. Electric car insurance providers know they will have to pay more to replace an EV than a conventional car. 

Thankfully, Lemonade is here to help protect your car while you help protect the environment. We provide fair rates based on your actual driving performance, offer the most discounts and savings for electric cars, and automatically apply a discount when you bundle any of our products with your electric car insurance. 

Our electric car insurance is also packed with extra insurance coverages. And the best part? We plant trees as you drive, to help clean up after your emissions. More on that exciting program here.

Click below to get started with your quote—if you live in Illinois—or to add your name to our mailing list and find out when Lemonade Car rolls into your state.

And here’s a handy, all-in-one infographic if you’d like to spread the word about how electric cars work and where the industry is heading!

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Please note: Lemonade articles and other editorial content are meant for educational purposes only, and should not be relied upon instead of professional legal, insurance or financial advice. The content of these educational articles does not alter the terms, conditions, exclusions, or limitations of policies issued by Lemonade, which differ according to your state of residence. While we regularly review previously published content to ensure it is accurate and up-to-date, there may be instances in which legal conditions or policy details have changed since publication. Any hypothetical examples used in Lemonade editorial content are purely expositional. Hypothetical examples do not alter or bind Lemonade to any application of your insurance policy to the particular facts and circumstances of any actual claim.