How does an electric car work?

As the world shifts towards a more sustainable future, shiny electric cars charging on our driveways are becoming a common thing. More and more people choose all-electric vehicles (EVs) instead of gasoline or diesel cars, changing the automotive industry and the used vehicle market. 

But how an electric car works, and what should owners and potential buyers know about them?

Let’s dive into the inner workings of electric vehicles, exploring the technology behind them and the ways in which they differ from their gas-guzzling counterparts.

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What is an electric car and how does it work?

An electric car is an automobile that uses an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine and stores all of the power in rechargeable battery packs. 

Many modern EVs have more than one electric motor, providing better performance and longevity.

Source: quinet / Flickr

How does an electric car work? 

The energy is taken from the battery and converted into power by an electric motor. From there, everything is identical to a gas-powered car – shafts, wheels, and brakes. 

EVs have about 20 moving parts in a powertrain, while gasoline and diesel cars have around 200. Therefore, electric vehicles require less maintenance and can be very reliable.

One of the most important aspects of electric cars is how far an electric car can drive on one charge. Conventional car owners can pop up their trunks and use a fuel can to fill up at any time, whereas electric vehicles must be charged at charging stations, requiring more time and planning.

Normally, EVs with longer ranges have bigger batteries and are more expensive, but you don’t need to buy a few-hundred-mile-range electric car if you’re only looking for a city commuter.

A quick overview of electric car batteries

While internal combustion vehicles only need a single 12-volt battery to supply all electrical systems, 400-volt motors in electric vehicles require much more than that. 

You won’t be able to find an EV’s replacement battery for $100 at your local store. Most electric cars have big battery packs placed along the bottom to provide energy for hundreds of miles without a charge.

What’s inside an EV battery?

Car manufacturers use various kinds of batteries to power their all-electric models. 

For instance, lithium-ion batteries in electric cars consist of thousands of regular rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, similar to those found in your TV remote. This is the most widely used battery type in consumer electronics because it can withstand 3,000-5,000 charging cycles and provide a high power-to-weight ratio. 

Source: wbaiv / Flickr

Another well-known type is a lead-acid battery. It consists of lead plates submerged in an electrolyte of sulfuric acid and is very cheap to make – that’s why lead-acid batteries are still very popular among drivers. 

However, they aren’t used as main EV battery packs because they’re too heavy and lose capacity fairly quickly.

You may have also heard about nickel-metal hybrid and solid state batteries. The latter is fairly new and still in development, but the structure of nickel-metal hybrid batteries is similar to lithium-ion. 

Nickel-metal hybrid batteries are only used in hybrid electric vehicles because they have a high self-discharge rate, generate more heat, and cost more than lithium-ion batteries.

How do EV batteries store and release energy?

EV batteries work by storing chemical energy, which is then used to power an electric motor. Individual battery cells in a lithium-ion battery pack contain a positive and a negative electrode submerged in electrolyte which separates them.

When the battery is charged, the lithium ions in the electrolyte move toward the cathode (a positive electrode), which absorbs the ions. At the same time, the anode (a negative electrode) releases electrons that flow through an external circuit and power a vehicle’s electric motor.

When you drive a car, the process is reversed. The cathode releases the lithium ions back into the electrolyte while the anode absorbs the electrons, completing their circuit through the electric motor.

The capacity of a battery is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh), so the bigger the capacity, the more energy a battery pack can store.

Things you should know about charging an EV

Charging becomes a daily task once you own an electric car. Therefore, you should know how it works and how much does it cost to charge an electric car

EV manufacturers use different battery packs and chargers, so chargers can be separated into three levels:

  • Level 1. The slowest and simplest charging method that involves plugging a 120-volt charger into a standard electrical outlet. While it doesn’t require any additional setup, it only provides up to 4-5 miles of charging per hour, making it impossible to fully charge an electric car overnight.
  • Level 2. These chargers are often found in public and residential areas. Level 2 charging provides up to 80 miles of range per hour, meaning you can get a full charge overnight, even if the battery is dead. However, such chargers require at least a 208-volt dedicated circuit and a powerful supply line from a breaker box. Setting up a Level 2 charger is expensive but definitely a worthy investment.
  • Level 3. This is the fastest charging type available. It uses up to 900 volts, costs tens of thousands of dollars to install, and provides up to 20 miles of range per minute. Since most EVs can be fully charged within 15-20 minutes using a Level 3 charger, they’re called Superchargers or DC Fast Chargers. You can find them in public places, but they’re very rare in private homes.

As you can see, how long does it take to charge an electric car depends mostly on the charging station type. 

Most EV owners install Level 2 charging stations at their homes to ensure a car’s battery is full every morning. However, if there’s a charging station at your workplace, you can stick to a Level 1 charger since you won’t be using it often.

Open Grid Scheduler Grid Engine / Flickr

However, charging in public isn’t as pleasing as it used to be since many governments don’t provide this service for free anymore – charging your electric car in public often costs more than at home. 

You should calculate how much does it cost to charge an electric car at home before choosing a charger type because it may be a few times cheaper, especially if you can hunt for lower electricity prices.

Batteries in electric cars also charge when a car is braking due to regenerative braking. This system uses braking momentum to send some juice into a battery and preserve brake system elements, so it’s a win-win situation.

The electric motor of an EV

Electric vehicles are powered by alternating current (AC) motors. Similar but less powerful motors can be found in washing machines, ovens, and other appliances. 

All electric motors mainly consist of three parts – stator, rotor, and casing. When current is applied to a stator, an electromagnetic field spins the rotor, converting current into mechanical energy.

The simplicity of an electric motor brings great reliability. While electric motors don’t require any maintenance, internal combustion engines reduce friction, maintain fuel mixture, fuel pressure, air and fluid temperatures. Therefore, they require strict regular maintenance. 

Recent reports reveal that many EVs are among the least reliable vehicles on the market, but issues are usually related to software, infotainment, and interior quality – electric motors or drivetrains don’t cause problems.

Advantages of electric vehicles

EVs are gaining popularity due to their environmental and economic advantages. Nowadays, going electric seems like a great way to reduce air pollution and contribute to a greener environment, especially when governments encourage people to buy electric vehicles by offering various benefits. 

Here are a few popular reasons to go electric.

Positive impact on the environment

Electric cars don’t have engines, so they don’t produce tailpipe emissions of air pollutants. You may have heard that electric cars are even worse because the manufacturing of batteries is very harmful, but that’s a myth – the greenhouse emissions of an EV over its lifetime are much lower than those from fossil fuel cars, even with battery manufacturing included

Calculation of how much CO2 does an electric car emit reveals that even with battery manufacturing included, electric cars produce almost 3 times less CO2 per year than conventional vehicles.

Also, every electric vehicle buyer should learn what is the tax on electric cars in their country. At the moment, many countries still encourage people to choose EVs by not taxing them, but this won’t last forever because they still need to collect money for roads and public transportation.

EVs are fun

While some people still think of EVs as dull and sluggish, modern electric vehicles are actually quite fast and engaging. 

For instance, the Polestar 2 can do 0-60 mph in 4.1 seconds. The Tesla Model Y, the most popular manufacturer’s model, does it in 3.5 seconds. If you’d want such acceleration in a gasoline vehicle, you’d need a gas-gulping sports car. 

Moreover, heavy battery packs in electric cars create a low center of gravity, meaning they handle better.  

Trips are exceptionally comfortable

Source: verchmarco / Flickr

Many aspects make electric vehicles great for long road trips. First of all, they’re very smooth and quiet, therefore, engine noise and vibrations won’t tire you. Also, since EVs are heavy due to a battery pack, they provide a softer ride and you won’t feel bumps and other road imperfections as much.

Many countries are covered in EV charging stations, so the limited range isn’t an issue anymore. Various smart apps and systems also contribute to making your trips more comfortable. They can even plan a trip for you – all you need to do is to enter your destination and it will find the most optimal route, marking every stop you have to make to charge the battery.

Cheaper maintenance

Replacing all of the mechanical nightmares with a simple electric motor guarantees straightforward maintenance and provides more power. 

As battery electric vehicles don’t have oil, spark plugs, fuel systems, a timing belt, an exhaust, and many other components conventional cars have, their maintenance is significantly cheaper. After conducting a survey based on hundreds of thousands of drivers, Consumer Reports revealed that on average, EV owners pay $4,600 on lifetime regular maintenance and repairs, while conventional car owners pay $9,200.

But the big question is – how much does a battery for an electric car cost?

Typically, their prices start at around $4,000 and, depending on a car, can rise as high as $30,000. Fortunately, batteries deteriorate very slowly and can last up to 20 years if maintained properly.

Multiple charging options

Source: Grand Canyon NPS / Flickr

Electric vehicle charging options are based on the three levels we described earlier, but these can also vary. 

Many Level 1 and Level 2 chargers are portable, meaning you can charge an electric car at home and then once again at your relatives 200 miles away without making a stop. Just make sure to learn how much does a charging station for an electric car cost to ensure you’re choosing a viable option. 

But even if you need to make a stop, there are over 2 million public charging stations in the world, and the number is rising each year.

What properties should a good EV have?

While EVs are rapidly growing in popularity, they’re still far from taking over the market. Some people complain about their high prices, while others are simply not ready for a change yet.

New electric cars are improving rapidly, making them a more considerable choice. But what properties make an electric car actually good?

You can easily figure out the essential traits of an EV by understanding why people do and why they don’t buy electric vehicles.

Most people buy them because they want lower fuel and running costs and a better driving experience, and some want to show their concern about climate change. This proves that for an EV to be good, it must be economical, reliable, and provide decent comfort and features.

However, “range anxiety”, high price, and unusual designs still put off many potential buyers, meaning a good electric vehicle should have a fast portable charger, cost less, and have an appealing looks. Recent trends reveal that as competition grows, manufacturers provide better features, reduce prices, and take the customers’ needs more seriously.

At the moment, the Chevrolet Bolt EV, Kia Niro EV, and Hyundai Ioniq 5 are among the best electric cars for daily use. They’re affordable, have a decent range, and don’t look like flying saucers. Such models are great for first-time EV buyers, who make up the biggest part of electric car buyers. 

In the future, customers shouldn’t be concerned about how much does an electric car cost as much as they do now because the prices of EVs are falling each year.

All in all, EVs are powered by a simple traditional electric motor, therefore, they have a tenth of the moving parts found in conventional cars. While some parts of EVs are still problematic, it seems that our future cars have the potential to be trouble-free for many miles.


How long do electric car batteries last?

Electric car batteries last about 15-20 years.

Do electric cars use oil?

No, electric vehicles don’t need oil.

How are electric cars better than gasoline cars?

Electric cars are more economical, environmentally friendly, provide a softer and quieter ride, instant power, and require less maintenance than gasoline cars.


Article by

Evaldas Zabitis

Evaldas has been writing since middle school and has had a passion for cars for as long as he can remember. Right after getting his driver’s license, he spent all of his savings on shoddy cars so he could spend time fixing, driving, and selling them. Evaldas is always interested in automotive technical innovations and is an active participant in automotive community discussions.