Taking Charge

Electric cars. How do they work? How do they feel? What would it be like to own one?

Taking Charge

Electric cars. How do they work? How do they feel? What would it be like to own one?

The first thing you’ll notice about the car is that it makes no noise. It just starts moving, so silently that you almost don’t notice. Some cars actually have a noise-generator added in, to reassure people that they’re still working.

When it’s time to change gears, you’ll be a bit bewildered. The car will have only three options: Drive, Reverse, and Neutral. A push on the accelerator is enough to get the car going as fast as you want. Turns out, it’s not time to change gears after all.

It rarely ever is.

Most people speak of electric cars in terms of “energy efficiency”, “green transport”, “air pollution” and “fossil-fuel free”. They argue about “tailpipe emissions”, “battery lifetime” and “economic viability”.

But it’s rare to hear about the cars themselves. How do they work? How do they feel? How are they different from the (for now) ‘ordinary’ cars?

The big difference between an electric car and a petrol one is, of course, that one uses electricity and the other uses petrol. What makes that difference big is that the two engines have two completely different ways of working.

Petrol cars use an ‘internal combustion engine’. Put simply, a piston inside the engine compresses air and fuel together. That causes an explosion, which pushes the piston back out and moves the engine forward, starting the whole cycle all over again.

The motor pushes the piston, which compresses the petrol, which explodes to make the motor move again.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Most cars use a ‘four-stroke engine’, which means the piston does four different things: ‘intake’ to take in the petrol, ‘compression’ to squeeze and blast it, ‘combustion’ which sets the motor moving, and ‘exhaust’ which sends the waste gas out. There are also many other bits and pieces to keep the engine running.

But the basic idea is this: petrol explosions push the car forward.

Electric engines, on the other hand, are a whole different creature. They make use of the fact that electric currents also create a magnetic field around them. Not a straight magnetic field, but one that goes round and round.

So, what the motor does is, it has a powerful magnet inside it. When the electricity travels in from the batteries, and makes its rotating magnetic field, the motor’s magnet will go round and round too!

Of course, it’s not that simple. That’s the way the simple DC motors work. AC motors, commonly used for electric cars, have several coils running in different ‘phases’ and the current keeps alternating.

But the basic idea is this: an electric field causes the magnet to move.

Interestingly, the idea can also work the other way round. Instead of the electricity turning the magnet round and round, the turning magnet can be used to generate electricity. That’s how electric generators work — and, as you’ll soon find out, your car’s motor can work the same way too!

Suddenly, you may see something coming towards you and slam on the brakes. In ordinary cars, that would be a waste of fuel. All that effort to get the car running would have been cancelled, and have to be done all over again. And the extra energy? It would get lost in the friction and end up as waste heat.

Not so for electric cars. They have their motors connected to the brakes, so what the braking actually does is to turn the motor the other way round. It becomes a generator, recharging the batteries with the braking energy! This ‘regenerative braking’ can increase the range of the car, making its batteries last for longer distances.

Of course, regenerative braking can only take you so far. There will come a time when your car actually runs out of charge — and what will you do then?

The simplest solution is to plug it in at home, along with your smartphone, and leave them both to charge overnight. In fact, that would probably become a normal routine. It would be enough to get around most of the time: nowadays, cars have enough battery capacity to last you 50 kilometres and back.

If you’re going on a longer trip, you’ll have to plan ahead a bit — just like how you plan ahead to keep your smartphone charged. The difference is that, if your charge runs out, you can’t just top it up by plugging it into the car.

Electric charging stations aren’t very common yet, though as EVs get more popular their numbers are sure to go up.

As you pull into the charging station, you may be prepared for a long wait: unlike petrol tanks, batteries can take hours to fill up. Luckily, chances are that you don’t have to wait that long. The battery-swapping technology in many stations lets you take out your used battery and replace it with a fresh, fully-changed one.

Of course, you don’t have to wait till your battery runs dry. Modern EVs use exactly the same batteries as your laptop and smartphone — it’s just that there are more of them. So, instead of waiting for them to get completely empty, you can just plug in and top them up as and when you get the chance.

Because of its electric motor, your vehicle will also have less moving parts. Your electric motor itself will have under ten moving parts, compared to hundreds for the internal combustion engine. That means less things that can go wrong, and less things to maintain. Apart from replacing the batteries every few years, of course (and that would be quite a large expense).

That’s not all. Without extra bits and pieces to worry about, an electric motor can be controlled electronically. For high-end cars, that means they can be locked, unlocked and even programmed to do things via an app.

But more than that, there’s the potential for making cars that are completely software-controlled. Cars that can actually handle all the driving themselves. With their lightning-quick reflexes, you’d hardly need to do anything.

Except, perhaps, start searching around for a good antivirus…

Author’s note: The experiences in this piece are all speculative, as I haven’t ever used an electric car myself. If you have, do let me know if the descriptions were accurate, or if there’s anything I overlooked or missed adding 🙂

Looking for more? With this piece, we bring this week’s electric car series to a close. We’ve covered what countries are doing to promote them, gone into a bit of history, and more. Check out the whole series here, if you haven’t yet!

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