What is an electric car?
We explain the modern electric car (or electric vehicle/EV), plus how to charge it and what to think about when buying one
An electric car is different to a traditional car in one key way: electricity is used to drive the wheels instead of a petrol or diesel engine. That’s the short answer to the headline question but the chances are you’re looking for a little more detail – so read on for all you need to know about electric vehicles (EVs).
Electric cars use a larger version of a battery similar to the one in your phone, which is connected to an electric motor that turns the wheels. The car’s other functions such as the lights, climate control and stereo are all electrically powered too.
Electric cars need to be plugged in to charge the battery, unlike hybrid cars that have an engine under the bonnet that charges the battery using fuel. Plug-in hybrids are a kind of half-way house, with the ability to run either on petrol/diesel or battery power from the mains.
Charging an electric car
Most electric-car drivers plug in their cars at home but there are also public charging points all over the country, including those at all motorway service stations. Some drivers charge up at their workplace, using a charger in the car park.
There are three factors you need to consider when it comes to the time it takes to charge an electric car: the size of the vehicle’s battery pack (measured in kWh), the charging speed the battery will accept and the type of charging point you’re using.
Using a domestic socket, the popular first-generation Nissan Leaf takes around eight hours to fully recharge, with a maximum range of 124 miles. But most owners will use a faster wallbox instead of a three-pin plug.
Most EV manufacturers offer a wallbox (or at the very least a recommended third-party supplier) which is installed on the side of your house or in your garage and offers faster charging speeds. These are regularly offered at a heavily discounted price as an incentive, to buy or lease. The Government will also provide an Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme (EVHS) grant that’ll cover 75% of the cost of a personal charging point up to the value of £350.
If you wish to charge your electric car at work, tell your employer about the Government’s Workplace Charging Scheme (WCS). This can support the purchase and installation of charging points to eligible businesses, charities and public-sector organisations.
More expensive models such as the Tesla Model S tend to have large battery packs, which often take longer to charge than the small ones found in cars like the Renault ZOE or MINI Electric. Yet some rapid public charging points are able to charge up very quickly indeed. For example, Tesla owners using the company’s ‘Supercharger’ charging points can extend their car’s range by 170 miles in just 30 minutes.
Public rapid chargers can charge at speeds of up to 350kW, though the fastest-charging production car currently on sale is the Porsche Taycan, which will accept up to 270kW. You can still use these chargers no matter what speed the car will take but the car will never charge faster than its maximum advertised rate.
A MINI Electric, for example, has a maximum DC charge speed of 50kW, while the Audi e-tron tops out at 150kW. However, it’s worth noting that all of these cars will only charge at their maximum rate for a short period of time in order to protect the health of the battery. This is why manufacturers often quote rapid charge times from 10-80%; outside of these parameters, charge times are much slower.
Slower AC charge speeds are often limited too; many plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) can accept only 3kW, while some Renault ZOEs can charge up to 43kW on a three-phase setup. Again, you can plug any car into a fast AC charger but the maximum rate is dictated by the car’s on-board AC charger.
Driving an electric car
Electric cars tend to feel very nippy at low speeds, which makes them ideal for driving in towns and cities. When you put your foot down from a standstill you may be surprised by how quickly it takes off, especially as there’s almost no noise from the electric motors. This will take a little getting used to; you’ll need to be gentle with the accelerator when pulling away at the lights. The reason for this is that while a petrol or diesel engine needs to build up fuel and air inside to make power, electric motors always have full power available from a standstill.
Electric cars tend to have just one forward gear, so instead of the stepped acceleration you get from a petrol or diesel car due to gearchanges, an electric car’s power feels completely smooth and linear. You can’t get an electric car with a manual gearbox, as there are no gears to change.
Slowing down and stopping feels different too, due to regenerative braking. As opposed to regular brakes, regenerative braking slows the car down by taking the energy no longer needed for the forward (or backward) momentum, using the electric motor as a dynamo to turn this energy into electricity that can be stored in the battery. While some energy-efficient petrol and diesel cars also have regenerative braking, in an electric car it can make the car slow down quite dramatically as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator.
You’ll also notice how quiet electric cars are; the most noise you’ll get at low speeds is a muted ‘hum’ from the electric motors. At higher speeds you may hear some noise from the tyres and the wind or air rushing against the car’s body. In fact, electric cars are so quiet at low speeds that some manufacturers fit noise synthesisers to warn pedestrians of their presence.
What are the pros of electric cars?
Electric car battery technology is rapidly improving, with increases in range and reductions in charging times announced on an almost monthly basis. This means that a newly launched electric car is likely to be significantly more capable than one that went on sale, say, 18 months ago.
Electric cars cost a little more to buy than the equivalent petrol or diesel-powered cars but running costs are very likely to be considerably lower. This is partly because electricity costs significantly less than petrol or diesel – at the moment at least. If you charge your electric car at home overnight, for example, it could cost you as little as £5 for a full charge rather than the £50-80 (or more) that you’ll have to shell out for a full tank of petrol or diesel.
The fact that electric cars have no tailpipe emissions makes them exempt from road tax. They also have free access to some congestion charge zones and sit in the lowest Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) company-car tax bracket, which is making electric cars increasingly popular as company cars. A Government grant of up to £3,000 is also available to private buyers to help with the purchase of electric cars; this is applied automatically to the price of the car.
Some major manufacturers are also offering significant ‘scrappage-style’ discounts to owners of older, more polluting vehicles to encourage them to switch to clean electric models.
You’re also likely to save in terms of maintenance costs. Electric cars are significantly less mechanically complicated than a petrol, diesel or hybrid car, which means there’s less to maintain and less to go wrong.
Electric cars that have been designed purely as electric cars often have more passenger space too. This is because they don’t have a large engine or transmission to accommodate, and the battery is usually mounted in the car’s floor, freeing up plenty of rooml. Often, the bonnet will lift up to reveal an extra luggage space, as there’s only a relatively small electric motor up front to power the wheels.
Another beauty of electric cars is that they don’t contribute to local pollution, although you’ll need to be careful the electricity that charges their batteries doesn’t come from gas or nuclear power if you want to be as green as possible. A good solution would be to use an energy supplier that guarantees you're provided with sustainable electricity, or go one step further and invest in your own solar panels or wind turbine to help charge your EV.
And the cons of electric cars?
Despite the lower running costs and Government grants, electric cars are still more expensive to buy than the equivalent petrol, diesel or hybrid car. This is because electric car technology is still relatively new, and there are high costs involved in development and production – particularly of the batteries. However, over time, the technology and the cars are likely to become significantly cheaper.
Another downside is what’s known as ‘range anxiety’ – that’s the driver’s fear of running out of power before they’ve reached a charge point. Most mainstream electric cars have a maximum range of between 100 and 200 miles, so if you use your electric car only for short, local journeys, you won’t have anything to worry about – especially if you plug your car in whenever you’re at home.
As well as powering the wheels, the battery also has to power the car’s lights, the air-conditioning, the stereo, sat nav, and various other electric systems. All of these systems use power from the battery, so if you’ve got everything on at the same time, this will have a significant impact on the car’s range.
Even charging from home can be tricky, especially if you don’t have off-street parking. Running a cable from your house across the pavement to your car is complicated, not very secure and could even be dangerous as it creates a hazard for pedestrians. There’s also the problem of not being able to park close enough to your house to run the cable to the car at all.
If, however, you want to go on a long journey, you’ll need to make sure you reach a service station with an electric charging point before your battery runs out, and that you allow for the time it will take to charge your car. While many chargers now accept contactless bank or credit cards, some will require you to sign up and create an account – so it’s worth doing some research and planning ahead.
Some people also have concerns about how many years the batteries might last and what happens once batteries need replacing. Due to the fact that electric cars are still relative newcomers to the mainstream car market, we still don’t have a conclusive answer to many of these concerns.
The battery is the most expensive single component in an electric car and just about every new electric car includes a battery warranty. This is often much longer than the standard manufacturer’s warranty, in many cases lasting up to eight years or 100,000 miles. If you intend to keep your car for only three or four years, this shouldn’t be cause for concern.
However, once the warranty has run out, the cost of replacing a used battery falls to the car’s owner. This is something to watch out for if you’re considering a second-hand electric vehicle, as replacing the battery could run to many thousands of pounds – possibly more than the car is worth.
For this reason, some manufacturers, such as Renault and Nissan, gave owners the opportunity to lease a car’s battery, which removed the responsibility for replacing it and reduced the purchase price of the car. You have to pay a monthly fee to lease the batteries, however, and this fee still applies to subsequent owners.
There are environmental issues surrounding the disposal of used batteries. They’re filled with a variety of potentially harmful chemicals that are very difficult – if not impossible – to recycle or dispose of safely and without potentially harming the environment.
However, a whole industry is springing up with companies looking to reuse old battery packs. Just because older batteries can't hold enough charge to run a power-hungry vehicle, that doesn't mean they can't be reconditioned and used to store renewable energy and even act as a back-up supply for homes or businesses in the event of a power cut.
Finally, there are the concerns for pedestrian safety because electric cars are incredibly quiet, especially at lower speeds when they create little or no tyre or wind noise. This means pedestrians who are blind or partially sighted, or forget to look before they cross a road, could be in greater danger of accidentally walking out in front of an electric car. Manufacturers are tackling this problem, however, by including synthesised noise generators to alert pedestrians to a car’s presence.
Electric cars aren’t for everyone. If you have to regularly make long journeys that risk exceeding the car’s range before you can charge it up again, it may be more practical to drive a petrol, diesel, hybrid or plug-in hybrid vehicle. However, if you live in an area with off-street parking, and most of your journeys are short ones, then an electric car could be perfect for you.