How Does an Electric Car Work?

Many drivers have absolutely no clue what happens under the hood of the conventional automobile, and yet they love their cars and use them effectively every day.

The same holds true for some electric car owners, although we suspect that a higher percentage of electric car owners have at least some idea what’s going on.

In all honesty, there’s no real need to develop a deep understanding of the underlying technology to own, drive, and enjoy an electric car. But it’s nice to have a basic understanding, so that you won’t be confused when you encounter electric car jargon.

In addition, It’s very likely that your family, friends, and acquaintances—not to mention random people who walk up to you in a mall parking lot—will have questions for you. Lot’s of questions.

Simple ones, like those below:

  • How far does it go?
  • Where’s the gas tank?
  • You plug it in at home?
  • How big is the battery?
  • How is this different than a Prius?

And more complicated questions that we’ll answer in this guide and other electric car articles.

But before we do, it’s not a bad idea to have some basic facts and definitions in your back pocket.

Let’s begin with basic electric car terminology.

It’s not at all difficult, but there are a few basic ideas that you should understand. In conversions about electric cars, you run into these simple terms:

  • The Battery and Charging
  • Volts and Amps
  • Kilowatts (kW)
  • Killowatt-Hours (kWh)

Nick Howe, provides a simple explanation of these ideas is his best-selling book, Owning Model S.

The analogies we’ll use on the following slides are drawn from Nick’s book.

The Electric Car Battery

  • The “heart” of the electric car
  • A variety of proprietary structures

It's reasonable to state that the battery lies at the heart of every electric vehicle.

That's why it's important to understand the battery and the way in which the battery is charged.

The internal battery structure is a technical topic better left for more advanced electric car mini-courses. For now, let’s understand some basics.

The Battery and Charging

  • The battery as a bucket
  • The bucket can be empty, full, or partly full
  • Charging an electric car is like filling the bucket
  • Driving an electric car empties the bucket

Nick Howe suggests that the battery is like a bucket that you can fill with water.

The bucket can be empty, full, or partly full.

Charging an electric car is a lot like filling the bucket, and when you drive an electric car, it's a lot like emptying the bucket.

Of course, you don't fill the battery with water, you fill it with electricity.

And the electricity doesn't come through a water pipe, but rather from the electric grid, then into your house, through a plug into your charging cable, and finally into your electric car.

So how does that happen? Actually there are two electrical terms – volts and amps – that come into play. I'm sure you've heard them before, but I also suspect that there at least a few of you who don't have a clue what they really mean. Nick Howe provides the following description of volts in his book:

Volts are like water pressure. if the pressure is high, water will shoot out of the hose a great speed. likewise, the higher the voltage, the faster the electricity will flow.

Amps are a measure of electrical current and are analogous to the volume of the water that comes out of the hose. The more amps, the more current is coming through a particular circuit. And that’s important, because the more amps delivered, the faster your battery charges.

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