What Is An Electric Car?

By · July 16, 2014

Detroit Electric Car, 1919

Charging up a Detroit Electric car, 1919. At the turn of the last century, electric cars were more desirable than vehicles powered by steam or gas. In the 1920s, the gasoline internal combustion automobile became dominant.

An electric car is powered by an electric motor instead of a gasoline engine. The electric motor gets energy from a controller, which regulates the amount of power—based on the driver’s use of an accelerator pedal. The electric car (also known as electric vehicle or EV) uses energy stored in its rechargeable batteries, which are recharged by common household electricity.

Unlike a hybrid car—which is fueled by gasoline and uses a battery and motor to improve efficiency—an electric car is powered exclusively by electricity. Historically, EVs have not been widely adopted because of limited driving range before needing to be recharged, long recharging times, and a lack of commitment by automakers to produce and market electric cars that have all the creature comforts of gas-powered cars. That has changed. As battery technology improved—simultaneously increasing energy storage and reducing cost—major automakers introduced a new generation of electric cars.

Efficiency Matters

Electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, reduce our dependency on oil, and are cheaper to operate. Of course, the process of producing the electricity moves the emissions further upstream to the utility company’s smokestack—but even dirty electricity used in electric cars usually reduces our collective carbon footprint.

Another factor is convenience: In one trip to the gas station, you can pump 330 kilowatt-hours of energy into a tank commonly holding 10 or more gallons. It would take several days to get the same amount of energy from household electric current. Fortunately, it takes hours and not days to recharge an electric car, because it's much more efficient. Speaking of convenience, let's not forget two important points: charging up at home means never going to a gas station—and electric cars require almost none of the maintenance, like oil changes and emissions checks, that internal combustion cars require.

Electric motors develop their highest torque from zero rpms—meaning fast (and silent) zero-to-60 acceleration times.

Electric vs. Gas Diagram

In the illustration, we show the relative features of electric cars and gas-powered cars. However, it doesn't have to be an "either-or" situation. Plug-in hybrids offer many of the benefits of electric cars while mitigating most of the drawbacks, such as limited driving range.

Read next: A Quick Guide to Plug-in Hybrids

Comments

· · 4 years ago

The hours to recharge vs minutes to refuel is accurate if we only account for how long the CAR is employed in the refueling process. In general, the more important part is how much time the driver needs to invest in the process. And the EV wins that contest every time. It takes about 12 minutes (all told with pulling off the road, paying, filling, getting back on the road) to put gas in a car. It takes about three seconds of my time to charge an EV.

So in summary, on a daily basis, it takes me FAR less time to charge my EV than it takes to fill my gas car. For the few times that I take a long trip (outside of the EV's single-charge range) it takes far less time to fill my gas car than to charge my EV. For the car that is the family daily driver, recharging at home is a huge benefit and time saver. I know that every aspect can't be included in the chart. But truly... this aspect of EV ownership is a commonly overlooked benefit in the EV/gasoline comparison. (Hey, how about we also include oil changes and tune-ups!)

· Irv (not verified) · 3 years ago

No one has yet mentioned the increased cost of the
electricity needed to recharge the batteries of the
EV vehicles, Does any one have that information?

· Ken Fry (not verified) · 3 years ago

Hi Irv,
The LEAF and the Volt are similar in electricity consumption, and 99 MPGe and 93 MPGe. In simple terms, these each get almost 4 miles per kilowatt hour. Electricity costs vary from location to location, but 10 cents per kilowatt is not uncommon. So these cars us about 2.5 cents per mile.

· · 3 years ago

Darelldd, its so good to hear someone else recognize the time saving aspect of charging an EV at home vs. pulling off the road to pump gas at a gas station. Heaven forbid you have to wait in line at the gas pump, too. I agree that we have much better things to do with our time, yes.

As far as charging an EV with *dirty electricity* - that should be a non issue for everyone. When we consumers go out to buy computers, and appliances, and lights, and air conditioners, do we really care where the electricity comes from for all of our electric gadgets? If you use the internet, do you ever think about the 1000s of computer servers at a data center consuming electricity and the 100s of kwh required by the AC systems to cool those servers? Does anybody care that we consume *dirty electricity* for these other uses? Since most people do not, then why should anyone care where the electrons come from when we charge our EVs? If you want to live in a clean, civilized society then we use electricity. Otherwise, if you are so concerned about *dirty electricity*, then pull the plug, disconnect from the grid, and go back to kerosene lamps, horses and buggies.

· Tom (not verified) · 3 years ago

Irv & Ken,

You may want to check with your local power company, because here in Southern California if you sign up with either of the 2 local providers (Edison & DWP) as an electric car user, per night-time kWh they only charge 6 cents + tax = a bit less than 7 cents per kWh, which is about 1.7 cents per mile.

My gas car gets a great 32mpg average, but that still costs over 13 cents per mile at current local gas prices, which are increasing weekly, so for ME, it's a "no-brainer" to trade up to an electric Focus or Leaf, because the FULL VEHICLE COST (with trade-in & govt. rebates) will be COMPLETELY covered by fuel savings in under 100,000 miles.

If you do a little math for your location (gas vs. electricity) you can figure out how many miles it will take you to save $10,000 on gas.

· · 3 years ago

> No one has yet mentioned the increased cost of the
electricity needed to recharge the batteries of the
EV vehicles, Does any one have that information?

I'm not sure I understand. Brad included a chart above that shows 2c per mile for charging the EV, and 12+c per mile for fueling your gas car. And the gas cost doesn't even include the external costs that we don't pay at the pump! And gas prices keep going up, while my solar electricity will remain the same price for the rest of my life.

The short answer: It is cheaper to fuel an EV than a gas car.

· · 3 years ago

I lol'ed

I want a male - male cord like in the picture! It'd be shockingly entertaining watching people trying to plug their car in outdoors in the rain!

· Anonymous (not verified) · 3 years ago

It seems that electric cars are better than hybrid cars because it has zero emission. The only problem they are concerned are the availability of charging stations and the normal limit of 40 miles per charge.

· · 3 years ago

@ Anonymous -

What is a "normal limit of 40 miles per charge?" The only EV on the road that has 40 battery miles is the VOLT (which also contains a range extending ICE). The "normal" range of an EV these days is ~100, though we also have cars with over 200 miles (Roadster) and more to come (Model S).

The availability of charging stations is only a real concern to those who live in apartments and those who wish to monetize charging. The rest of us charge at home most times, and only use public charging rarely if at all.

· · 3 weeks ago

What about fuel cell cars? They are electric. How come they have been omitted from this article? In fact, fuel cell cars are hybrid cars, but instead of an ICE engine, they have a fuel cell to recharge the battery. Best of both worlds?

· · 3 weeks ago

If by "best of both worlds" you mean:
Less efficient and more expensive than a battery EV, then yes!

Otherwise... not so much. The magic "fuel cell" requires fuel. Which first requires a large amount of energy and resources to create. Once we have compressed H2 onboard, THEN it can make electricity. H2 is mostly made from natural gas. We'd be better off burning that NG directly in an NG ICE engine than converting it first to H2, and then consuming it in a fuel cell vehicle. And look how popular NG vehicles have been...

Fuel Cells are the future of a transportation system that I'd rather not be a part of. We don't really have the time, the money or the resources to make that work right now. Not when there are better choices available that are proven, more cost effective and... well... available. I prefer to make my fuel on the roof of my house for free. Who should pay for the H2 stations? And why?

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