How do electric cars work?

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How do electric cars work?

Electric and hybrid cars have been enjoying a rapid surge in popularity over the last decade or so. In this article we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions about electric vehicles, such as; how do electric cars work? What are the pros and cons of electric vehicles? What do they cost and are they worth it?

A brief history of the electric car

Surprisingly, electric cars actually pre-date petrol cars. The first electric vehicles were developed in the late 19th century, with British inventor Thomas Parker being credited with building the first production electric car in London in 1884. At the peak of their popularity there were around 30,000 electric cars in circulation worldwide.

A photo of Thomas Parker in an early electric car.

As you can imagine, these early electric cars weren’t without their limitations, and petrol soon took over as a cheap, plentiful and easy-to-use fuel. Quick refuelling times, longer range and better infrastructure all helped to solidify the popularity of the internal combustion engine in the first decade of the 20th century.

Electric cars remained unpopular right up until the end of the last century, when environmental concerns and rising fuel prices brought them back into the conversation. In the 2000s, improvements in battery technology once again made electric cars a viable, affordable way to get around – with various electric & hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, Nissan Leaf and the Tesla range (amongst many others) becoming common sights on our roads.

What exactly is an electric car?

The Nissan Leaf is one of the world’s best-selling electric cars. Image source:

The term “electric car” refers to a road-legal, highway-capable electric automobile, whereas “electric vehicle” is a more general term that can apply to all kinds of electric-powered vehicles both big and small. Electric cars are powered purely by electricity – as opposed to hybrid cars, which use an electric motor combined with a smaller petrol engine, allowing them to achieve very high fuel efficiency.

Electric cars use a large, rechargeable battery along with one or more electric motors. They can be recharged by plugging them in to a power supply, either at home or at a public charging station. Hybrid cars work a little differently, depending on which kind of hybrid you’re talking about. We’ll discuss hybrids in more detail below.


The one big difference between a conventional and electric car of course is the fuel. A traditional car burns petrol, releasing energy that drives the pistons and creates motion. This chemical reaction also creates carbon dioxide and other byproducts that are released into the air. Much of the energy released from the fuel is lost as either heat or sound – only around 20-30% of the chemical energy in your petrol goes into moving the car.

Electric cars on the other hand store their energy in large lithium ion-batteries – the exact same technology that powers your smartphone or laptop. Electrons gradually leave the battery, powering an electric motor that drives the wheels. Although electric cars are heavier than those with internal combustion engines, they are much more efficient – only around 20% of energy in the battery is wasted.

Are electric cars the answer to global pollution?

Although electric cars are going to increase in the future, at the moment there are several questions to address. In order for the electric car to have a positive impact on the environment we must first fix the energy pollution at the source. If the source of the electric provided to run the car is created by fossil fuels, it renders the electric car mute. We must first ensure all electric car chargers are generated from renewable energy.

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