What Is an Electric Vehicle, and How Does It Work?

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Hear “electric car” and your first thought is most likely Tesla. Although the startup automaker is not the first to build an all-electric vehicle, it is the grandmaster of sales and undoubtedly the reason why electric vehicles (EV) are part of the daily dialogue – automotive or otherwise.

But what is an electric car really? Just an automobile without an engine? Yes, but there’s always more to it, isn’t there?

A Spark Ignited

Thomas Parker and his electric car
In the late 1800s, an electrical engineer and noted inventor named Thomas Parker claimed to have built the first production-ready electric car. (Wikipedia)

You might be surprised to learn that the first EV preceded the Ford Model T – the first mass-market automobile – by nearly 25 years. According to The Telegraph, Englishman Thomas Parker laid claim to developing the first production-ready electric car. An electrical engineer and inventor, Parker was no stranger to innovation, having a hand in electrifying the London Underground subway system as well as creating a smokeless fuel known as coalite.

Incidentally, until the early 20th century, EVs were the preferred mode of transportation due to their ease of operation, quietness, and comfort versus gasoline-powered counterparts. However, advancements in internal combustion engines (ICE) and auto manufacturing processes propelled gasoline cars ahead of electrics.

But nothing lasts forever, and today’s modes of transportation are as varied as the technologies that power them. With increasing focus on minimizing pollution and utilizing renewable energy sources, “green” mobility solutions, such as EVs and human-powered rides (i.e., bicycles, scooters, our own feet), are now more widely accepted.

Early adopters of modern electrified automobiles also were rewarded with substantial federal and state incentives. The state of California even offered unlimited high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane access to further pique interest and sales of hybrids and other environmentally friendly vehicles. So, what made these vehicles so different from their ICE counterparts?

Technically Speaking

BMW i3 transparent image showing electric drive components
EVs feature an electric motor that, along with a high-capacity battery pack, generates energy to power the vehicle. Here, you can see the battery located under the BMW i3’s passenger compartment. (BMW)

On a basic level, all vehicles are essentially energy converters in that they turn potential (stored) energy into kinetic (movement) energy.

With a conventional car, the stored energy comes in the form of gasoline or diesel fuel that, through a chemical reaction within the ICE, converts to kinetic energy. In an electric car, this stored energy lies within a battery pack instead of a fuel tank, and its power conversion takes place via an electric motor instead of an engine.

Not all EVs are created equal, however, as there are no fewer than four kinds of vehicles that fall under the broader “electric car” category. The subsegments are called battery electric vehicle (BEV), plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), and fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV).

FCEVs use compressed hydrogen gas stored in a tank, which is converted into electricity by a fuel cell stack located aboard the vehicle. That electricity flows through a battery pack to an electric drive motor.

At the other end of the spectrum, HEVs have a comparatively small battery that does not need to be plugged in because it recharges through a process known as regenerative braking. Regenerative braking uses the vehicle’s momentum to capture energy that would otherwise be lost as friction and heat on the disc brakes but is instead used to either continue powering the vehicle or is saved for later consumption. Think of it as the Circle of Life: Energizer Bunny Edition. Because it can keep going and going.

A PHEV is basically an HEV on steroids: bigger battery, more juice, able to go faster and farther using nothing but electricity. But the party doesn’t last long, and then the gasoline-fueled ICE fires up and the PHEV operates like an HEV until you plug it in and recharge the battery pack.

BEVs are powered entirely via an electric motor and high-capacity battery packs. From a performance standpoint, because there is no engine to idle, horsepower and torque are readily available the moment you press on the accelerator. Also, thanks to the sheer size placement of the battery packs, BEVs generally have a lower center of gravity, which means a more balanced and smoother ride.

Depending on your electricity source (e.g., solar panel, wind farm), a BEV can be one of the greenest vehicle options available. Charging is generally done at home overnight when the rates are lowest, but many workplaces have installed EV charging stations for employee use as well.

There also is a growing number of pay-per-charge stations, courtesy of companies like ChargePoint and EVgo, that are located within parking facilities at city centers, on university campuses, and, ironically, at some gas stations. Based on location and municipality, usage may be available free of charge.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of different kinds of electric vehicles.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEV)

2019 Toyota Prius LE in Red
Available globally since 1997, the Toyota Prius is the world’s most recognizable HEV with more than 4.3 million units sold. (Toyota)

An HEV is probably most familiar to consumers. A best-selling example of the “standard hybrid” class is the Toyota Prius. Similar to PHEVs, HEVs are equipped with both an electric motor and an ICE. Unlike PHEVs, the electric motor will power the vehicle from a stop before the ICE kicks in after a couple of miles. Regenerative braking recharges the battery, but an HEV operates essentially like a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle.

HEV pros and cons include:

Pros

  • More make and model options than for BEV/PHEVs
  • Farthest driving range
  • Lower price than BEV/PHEVs

Cons

  • Requires fuel and related engine maintenance costs
  • State and federal rebates or incentives no longer available

Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV)

Gray Honda Clarity Plug-in driving
One of the newest PHEVs on the market, the Honda Clarity’s 47 miles of electric-only range is currently the highest of any midsize PHEV. (Honda)

Like BEVs, PHEVs can be recharged by plugging into the power grid, but they also have the additional support of an ICE. PHEVs can operate exclusively on electric power for dozens of miles before switching to the gas engine once the battery pack has been depleted.

PHEV pros and cons include:

Pros

  • Increased driving range compared to BEVs
  • More fuel efficient than an ICE-equipped vehicle
  • More make and model options than for BEVs

Cons

  • Does emit some tailpipe emissions
  • Requires fuel and related engine maintenance costs
  • Cost of ownership is more than for BEVs

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV)

Blue Tesla Model S at sunset
The Tesla Model S is the quickest 4-door sedan—EV or otherwise—ever built. Performance does not come cheap, however, as the base MSRP for a 2018 Model S 75D starts at $76,000, excluding any applicable tax incentives. (Tesla)

A popular example of a BEV is any Tesla vehicle, particularly its Model S and Model X, which offer what the automaker calls “Ludicrous” mode. If so equipped, these high-powered luxury vehicles can go from zero-to-60 mph in 2.5 and 2.9 seconds, respectively, thanks to a software tweak. Yes, that is very fast. However, the company is notorious for its Tesla-exclusive charging stations.

BEV pros and cons include:

Pros

  • No engine or fuel required, which lowers overall maintenance costs
  • No tailpipe emissions
  • Convenience of charging at home or work
  • High power-to-weight ratio for increased performance
  • Most BEVs are ideal for shorter, intracity commutes

Cons

  • Driving range is less than a conventional car and strongly influenced by a variety of factors (battery size, performance needs, driving style, weather)
  • Charging times based on system classification (Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, or DC fast charging)
  • Outside of major cities, charging station locations may not be ideal or convenient
  • Higher price than a conventional car making for a higher initial cost of ownership

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV)

2019 Hyundai Nexo Limited
The new 2019 Hyundai Nexo is one of just three FCEV models available for sale in the U.S. And it is the only one that looks and functions like a crossover SUV. (Hyundai)

The infrastructure to support FCEVs is in its infancy. Public hydrogen refilling stations are open in California and Hawaii, with more planned between Boston and New York City. Still, at the start of 2019, you can almost count the number of them on your fingers and toes.

FCEV pros and cons include:

Pros

  • You pull into a hydrogen fueling station, swipe a credit card, and use a pump, just like a gas station
  • FCEVs emit nothing into the atmosphere except water vapor and warm air
  • In fact, FCEVs actually clean the air as they drive through it
  • Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe
  • Car companies offering FCEVs provide free fuel, free car rentals, and other perks

Cons

  • If you don’t live in California or Honolulu, you can’t get an FCEV
  • Only three different models are available: the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, the Hyundai Nexo, and the Toyota Mirai

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