How do electric cars work? The beginner’s guide

Date Posted 20th July 2021
Read Time 6 min read

Electric cars are being heralded as the future of motoring thanks to their major role in cutting down harmful emissions. 

However, they’re not really that new a concept. The very first production electric car was around in England in 1884 and continued to be popular until petrol technology overtook.

Regardless of their history, for many, the world of EVs (electric vehicles) is still bewildering. So if you want to understand more about the inner workings of electric cars, read on.

How do electric car engines work? 

An electric car uses electricity as its source of power, rather than petrol or diesel as you find in ‘more conventional’ vehicles. It’s driven by electric motors, which are powered by a battery pack. 

The battery pack is recharged by plugging into an electric power source, known as a charge point. The electricity is then stored in the batteries’ cells and used to power the electric motor. 

Some models will have a motor to drive one axle, front or rear-wheel drive. Others can have up to four motors – one for each wheel for four-wheel drive.

What is range? 

Range is how far you can travel on a single, full battery charge. It differs from car to car, as the range is dependent on the size and efficiency of the battery. Also, how you drive and even weather conditions can affect the range of a car.

Currently, the average range of an electric car is 150 miles, while some luxury models are around 300 miles and over. 

What are the different types of electric cars? 

There are several different types of electric vehicles (EVs), but they mainly fall into two different categories; all-electric and hybrid. 

An all-electric car, sometimes known as a zero-emission or pure electric car, is run only on electricity and has one or more electric motors.

A hybrid car has both a battery-powered electric motor plus a petrol or diesel combustion engine.

Here are some of the basic types:

Plug-in electric vehicles (EVs)

These are cars that run purely on electricity. They have a large battery that you charge by plugging in to an external source and typically can self-generate electricity too by braking. 

As they don’t use petrol or diesel, they don’t produce emissions like a conventional car would, so are deemed better for the environment.

Hybrid-electric vehicles (HEVs)

These run mainly on traditional fuels – petrol or diesel. However, they also have an electric battery, which charges up through braking. 

Through switching a button, you can change from using your fuel engine to your electric engine. They don’t need to be plugged in, because they mainly use petrol or diesel and it means you can use electric for shorter journeys, switching back to the combustion engine for longer journeys.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs)

Mainly reliant on electricity, plug-in hybrids also have a petrol or diesel engine, which you can switch to if they run out of charge. 

The battery pack that powers a PHEV’s motor is larger than pure hybrids, so it can run for longer on electric power alone, and therefore not produce as many emissions.

What are the components of an electric car? 

Electric cars use an advanced system with 90% fewer moving parts than those used in conventional internal combustion engine cars. 

Here are their key components:


An electric car’s battery stores the power to keep the vehicle running. The batteries can be charged from the power grid, and the higher the kW of battery, the bigger the range. 

Lithium-ion batteries are the standard ones used in electric cars. 

Electric engine

This is the engine that propels the wheels to move the electric car. Engines use either an AC or DC current, but AC motors are more common as they’re lighter and less expensive. 

AC motors also have fewer moving parts and are less prone to mechanical issues.

Drivetrain/Drive system

This is the system that sends the mechanical energy from the motor to the wheels. It makes a transmission system unnecessary in an electric car.

Motor controller

The motor controller in an electric car governs the operation of the vehicle, such as the distribution of power.

Regenerative braking

When an electric car moves, the motor generates forward momentum. This in turn can be used to charge the batteries when the brakes are applied. 

This is commonly referred to as regenerative braking and is the same technology you find in Formula 1.

How do electric car batteries work? 

Most electric cars use a lithium-ion battery pack. It’s made up of hundreds of individual battery cells and usually can be found along the chassis of the car. The electricity you use to charge the car is stored in that battery pack.

While batteries in most cars are used to start the engine or play the radio, the battery in an electric car runs it all – primarily the motor controller which runs the electric motor and puts the car in motion. 

The battery capacity of an electric car is measured in kilowatt-hours (kWh). The higher the kWh, the more range your car will have. 

How does charging work? 

Electric cars have to be plugged into the grid in order to recharge. It can be done by plugging it into a public charging station, which are readily available across the UK; from workplaces and supermarkets to service stations and car parks. These are usually fast chargers.

Or you can use a home charger. This is usually a slow charge, which is why many choose to do it overnight or off-peak times so you can save money on your electricity bill. 

Which EV is right for you? 

If, after reading this, you’re ready to dive into the world of EVs, you’ll be glad to hear you have plenty to choose from. 

With almost all manufacturers now embracing electrified technology, there’s now a plethora of makes, models and vehicle styles available. 

Alternatively, if you want to find out more about EVs, the technology used and whether they’d be a good fit for your budget, circumstances and needs, read one of our helpful articles below. 

  1. Should I Buy Or Lease An Electric Car?
  2. Are Electric Cars Better For The Environment?
  3. Electric Car Tariff Guide
  4. Electric Car Charging Guide
  5. Electric Car FAQ’s

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