Perhaps the most interesting plot-twist in the story of the electric car came in 2020, when Ford ran a campaign aiming to “demystify” the electric car. So how do electric cars work?
The Horseless Carriage
The first electric car (or “horseless carriage”, as it was then known) was created in 1887 in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, in a secret underground laboratory that its inventor – a Scottish chemist named William Morrison – liked to call “the Cave”. Morrison took great pride in his new invention, working with mechanical engineer Dr. Lew Arntz to help take his ideas from the page to the road.
The original vehicle seated up to twelve passengers travelling at a stately 14 mph. It was entered into parades and driven all over the city by Morrison himself, who said his invention was the first successful practical passenger automobile of any kind globally – and that he would pay $5000 to anyone who was able to prove him wrong.
Although the reward never was collected, Morrison’s hubris was short-lived: in 1908, Henry Ford introduced the Model T, overtaking electric and steam vehicles and further revolutionising the car industry.
Morrison’s electric car may have been the first, but it certainly wasn’t the fastest – The Model T was not only quicker, but also highly affordable: in 1912 a petrol-powered car cost around $650, while it’s electrical equivalent sold for a hefty $1750. Throughout the 1920s, as the roads and highways branched out further across the country, drivers needed a car that could go the distance.
Myths and Mysteries
To this day, the basic workings of an electric car remain much the same: essentially they’re still batteries on wheels – a feature that tends to put potential drivers off the idea of purchasing one. In a Forbes poll from 2019, the top three deterrents from purchasing an EV were – in order were:
- Concerns over the range available (otherwise known as“range anxiety”)
- High prices when compared to petrol models,
- A lack of available charging ports.
Several myths persist about electrical cars that prevent drivers from taking the wheel: the idea that they are bigger polluters (untrue), that they run out quickly (also untrue – the next Tesla Roadster is is expected to have a range of around 1000k), and are hard to maintain, which is also false: while internal combustion engines have around 10,000 moving parts, a typical electrical vehicle has around 18, requiring much lower maintenance than petrol-powered vehicles.
The Components of an Electrical Car
Typically, other key components of an EV include: the battery, the charge port and the DC converter, which converts higher voltage DC power from the traction battery pack to lower voltage DC, and is used to charge things such as:
- Vehicle accessories
- The main battery,
- The electric traction motor and onboard charger
- A power electronics controller to manage the flow of energy delivered by the traction battery
- The cooling thermal system
- A traction battery pack
- The electrical transmission, which transfers mechanical power from the motor to drive the wheels
Over time, the evolution of the electric car has produced a number of variations on the electric vehicle (EV), all of which fall under the umbrella term AFV, or alternatively-fuelled vehicle – meaning any car not using a conventional petrol or diesel engine.
There is the EV itself (a car running on electricity alone), and the hybrid, which offers a combination of conventional petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor and batteries. The most common type of this is known as a “parallel hybrid”, or “self-charging hybrid”, where the engine is still the main power source, but the wheels can be powered in three different ways: by the motor alone, by the engine or by both.
Other Categories of EV
- Range extenders, which are powered by electricity produced by a small petrol or diesel engine to produce electricity to recharge the batteries and increase range (but not to power the wheels). The aim of range extenders is to allow for an additional seventy to one-hundred miles of range, even with empty batteries.
- The PHEV or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, which can be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge. Essentially a cross between a full EV and a self-charging hybrid, it has larger batteries than the latter and can travel at speed for longer distances – up to 70mph,just using electric power.
- Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles – these mix oxygen and hydrogen in a fuel cell to create electricity.
To charge an electric car, the driver must either take it to public charging station or use a domestic or home charger: thesedraws electricity from the power grid – and tend to be the cheaper of the two.
How far all this can take you depends on the model. The Electrical Vehicle Database has a handy guide, with distances ranging from a modest 55 mile radius (the Smart EQ For Four), to the Tesla Cybertruck Tri Motior with a range of 465 miles.
Most EVs tend to use the same type of battery technology: hundreds of cells are packed into pockets (or modules) to make up the electric car battery itself, which is usually several metres long and situated along the chassis.
The battery is conditioned to maintain the temperature required to operate regardless of outside climate – and they have to be resilient in order to remain roadworthy.
The two main types of battery are:
- Nickel-metal hybrid, such as those used in Toyota Priuses
- Lithium ion batteries, which tend to be used the most. These operate on a similar principle to most smartphones, which also use lithium-ion to charge quickly.
As you’d expect, charging times vary according to model – ranging anywhere from an hour to 31 hours – however with most domestic charging points offering around 3.7kw or 7kw (22kw chargers and above tend to be more expensive) and with public rapid charging points still something of a rarity across the UK, faster charging speeds can be hard to come by, instilling “range anxiety” in potential buyers – no-one wants to suddenly run out of fuel before they’ve run out of road.
In many respects, EVs have come a long way since the first prototype first emerged from William Morrison’s cave. Alternately celebrated, shunned and derided (the use of hybrid cars or EVs tends to be used as something of a comedy trope in series such as Family Guy and Netflix’s Love, both of which feature the Toyota Prius)
EVs may have some distance to go before they become entirely mainstream – but increasing advancements in vehicle technology could mean we get there sooner than we think. The urgency of climate change, depleted fossil fuels and rising petrol prices are now powering a new kind of motoring revolution.