GreenCars 101
Electric Cars

Electric Car Overview

Laurance Yap
Oct 2023
When people talk about electric cars today, they’re most likely referring to battery electric vehicles (BEVs). They store energy in rechargeable batteries and use one or more electric motors to power the vehicle. Read on to learn more about their technology and history.
Want an overview of electric cars? Our GreenCars team has put together this guide so you can learn more about how they work.

What is an Electric Car?

Electric cars have been around longer than gasoline-powered cars. In fact, the first electric car was a motorized carriage in the early 1830s. Rechargeable batteries first appeared in 1859 in motorized carriages. In 1887, William Morrison patented his electric car in Des Moines, Iowa, and the electric race was on.

While many companies tried their hand at putting electric cars on the market, Henry Ford won the battle with his cheap-to-produce gasoline Model T. From then on, gasoline would dominate the automotive world...until now.

When people talk about electric cars today, they’re most likely referring to battery electric vehicles (BEVs). They store energy in rechargeable batteries and use one or more electric motors to power the vehicle – no gas required!

How Does an Electric Car Work?

If you’re used to gasoline vehicles, think of electricity as fuel; the rechargeable battery as the fuel tank; and the electric motor as the engine.

The battery is the largest component, and arguably the most important. It stores the electrical energy needed by the car and powers its systems. Most modern electric car batteries are energy-dense lithium-ion. Typically, a bigger battery (measured in kilowatt-hours, or kWh) means more electric range.

The battery is charged using an external source – a charging plug is inserted into the car’s charge port. Think of the charging plug as the EV equivalent to a fuel nozzle at a gas station. The car’s on-board charger converts the plug’s electrical current to a format that can charge the battery, whether it’s AC (alternating current) – like the kind of power in our home wall outlets – or DC (direct current) – like the kind available at public fast charging stations.

The electric motor converts electrical energy from the battery pack into mechanical energy to drive the wheels. Most electric vehicles don’t have a transmission with multiple speeds, so there are no gears to shift. Depending on the number and placement of the motors, an electric car can either be front-wheel drive (FWD), rear-wheel drive (RWD), or all-wheel drive (AWD).

Electric motors also help with “regenerative braking.” When you take your foot off the accelerator pedal, the motor actually works in reverse and converts the car’s forward motion back into electrical energy. Energy is then routed back to the battery. While it’s not enough to fully charge the battery, regenerative braking recovers energy that would otherwise be wasted.

EV inter workings diagram

Why Should You Buy an Electric Car?

Thanks to their simplicity, electric cars have fewer moving parts than gasoline vehicles – there are no oil changes, no transmission rebuilds, and wear and tear on the braking system is reduced. Lower maintenance costs are one of the biggest advantages.

Mechanical simplicity means electric cars are, on average, over twice as efficient as gas vehicles. Even the best gasoline vehicles convert only about 30% of the energy stored in gasoline into driving power. BEVs deliver over 70% of stored electrical energy to the wheels.

Electric cars can be cheaper to refuel. If you charge an EV at home overnight, for every mile of driving, the cost to recharge is a fraction of what that same mile would cost with gasoline. Depending on how much you drive, the accumulated savings in fuel costs could have a huge impact on your household budget.

You won’t sacrifice performance by going electric, either. In addition to being smoother and quieter than gasoline vehicles, electric cars offer impressive acceleration.

Electric cars are not perfect. Batteries are heavy, and over a long period of time, their capacity will deteriorate – travel many miles over many years and you may eventually require a battery replacement. To help with this issue, federal regulations mandate that automakers cover the battery of their BEVs with a warranty of at least eight years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Some automakers even take this a step further by covering battery degradation.

man in car waving at woman

Are Electric Cars More Expensive?

The added technology in electric cars comes at a price – they generally have higher suggested retail prices than most gasoline vehicles. However, federal, regional, and even local governments provide financial incentives that can lower their total cost. One of the best-known incentives is from the federal government, which offers up to $7,500 off the MSRP of eligible vehicles if they meet certain qualifications. You can research available incentives using the GreenCars Incentive tool – or ask your sales associate.

Front view of a Tesla Model 3 driving through canyon roads

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