According to The Guardian, at some point during the fall of 2018, the one millionth electric car was sold in the US. In fact, in every single state, electric vehicle ownership is on the rise. Data from National Automotive Dealers Association suggests that the number of electric cars sold in the country increased by almost 30% between 2016 and 2018.
With so many drivers choosing to go electric, we think it’s time to take a step back to ask some important questions about the benefits and challenges of these electric vehicles (EVs). In our guide, we attempt to tackle this topic by exploring the historical development of the electric car, how exactly they work, and what it’s like to own one. We also take stock of the benefits EVs can offer to both drivers and our planet, and finish off with a run down of our top three electric cars for 2019.
How They Work
First things first – how exactly do electric cars operate? As their name suggests, EVs rely on electric batteries, rather than gasoline or diesel, to provide the energy required for movement. Electrical energy is drawn from a large, rechargeable battery, and sent through a series of components before reaching an electric motor (or motors) that power the wheels, moving the vehicle.
Before the electricity can reach the motor, a couple of things need to happen:
- The DC (direct current) produced by the battery must be converted to AC (alternating current)
- The correct amount of power must be transferred to the motor to maintain the desired speed
These two goals are achieved with two vital components:
- The Potentiometers – Potentiometers are a type of variable resistor – they can resist the current flowing through an electrical circuit to a greater or lesser extent. In an EV, they’re connected to the accelerator pedal by a cable. When the driver depresses the accelerator pedal, the more pressure they apply, the less resistance the potentiometers apply. EVs typically have two potentiometers, and power is only supplied to the motor if both are set in the same position. This ensures that, should one fail when the accelerator is fully depressed, the vehicle will come to a gradual stop rather than lose control at high speed.
- The Controller – As its name suggests, the controller ultimately controls how much electrical energy reaches the motor of an EV. The controller ‘reads’ how much pressure has been applied to the accelerator pedal by receiving data from the two potentiometers. It uses this information to regulate how much power is fed into the motor. When the accelerator is depressed half way, power is provided to the motor for half the time; when it’s depressed a quarter of the way down, power is provided for a quarter of the time, and so on. The controller is also the point at which DC from the battery is converted into the AC required to power the motor.
With these two components working to control the power supplied to the EV’s motor, it can be driven much like a regular automatic car.
Despite this similarity in operation, EVs differ from their conventional counterparts in several key ways:
- Fuel Source
The first way in which electric cars differ from their conventional counterparts is obvious but bears repeating: they make use of a different fuel source. Conventional, gasoline-powered vehicles burn oil within an internal combustion engine, while EVs draw power from a rechargeable battery.
Unlike conventional cars, EVs don’t require different gears to work efficiently. Unlike an internal combustion engine, electric motors can produce 100% of their torque at very low speeds, so a set of gears designed to match the speed of the motor to the speed of the wheels just isn’t necessary. It is plausible to install one, but it would only weight the car down. Most EVs are set up just like an automatic car as far as the driver is concerned.
One of the first things you’re likely to notice when driving an electric car for the first time is how quiet it is. This is partly because the controller in most EVs pulses power delivery to the motor on and off 15,000 times per second – a frequency beyond the range of human hearing. EVs also have fewer moving parts than their conventional cousins, allowing them to run at whisper-quiet noise levels.
As it stands, gasoline vehicles can travel for many more miles than EVs without needing to be refuelled. This is because battery technology is yet to develop to a point where batteries can store as much energy as the same volume of gasoline. That being said, technology is developing all the time, and we can expect to see EVs achieving greater and greater ranges between charging in the coming years. Nonetheless, the average electric car today can travel around 120 miles between charges – since the average American driver travels 40 miles per day, EVs are generally up to the challenge.
History of Electric Vehicles
They might seem futuristic, but electric cars have a surprisingly long history. The official ‘inventor’ of the electric car is often debated, but it’s generally agreed that their origins can be traced to a nineteenth century Hungarian inventor, Anyos Jedlik. In 1828, Jedlik created a small electric motor that could power a small model carriage.
Jedlik’s invention was too small to actually carry passengers like today’s electric vehicles, but soon after, between 1832 and 1839, the Scottish inventor Robert Anderson was credited with the creation of the first full-sized electric car. This is by no means certain, however – in the same period, the American Thomas Davenport, and the Dutch Sibrandus Stratingh, were both credited with the same invention. Anderson’s, Davenport’s, and Stratingh’s electric vehicles all functioned along similar lines. They were crude designs, powered by non-rechargeable batteries, which limited their scope.
One important advancement came in 1865, when a French physicist named Gaston Plante developed the first rechargeable battery – it featured a lead-acid system which is actually still in use today! Plante’s design was improved upon later in the century, when another French scientist, Camille Faure, made alterations that significantly increased its capacity in 1881.
Faure’s newly improved battery opened the floodgates for a series of attempts to create a reliable and practical electric car – key moments included:
- 1884 – The English electrical engineer, Thomas Parker, created an electric car in Britain. Parker, who was colloquially known as ‘the Edison of Europe’, developed the vehicle with a mind to providing an alternative to burning coal and oil, which he understood was had a negative impact on the natural world. Parker’s EV is generally considered to be the first to have the potential to be mass-produced.
- 1888 – William Morrison, Scottish-born Iowan, created an electric car in Des Moines. Displayed in a parade that fall, the car stunned spectators who had never seen an automobile before. Morrison’s EV produced four horsepower, and had a top speed of 20 mph – very impressive at the time.
- 1889 – Thomas Edison himself, perhaps the most famous inventor of all time, also tired his hand at developing an electric car. Edison’s design featured a new type of battery – nickel-iron – that he spent 15 years of his life developing. Although they ultimately proved unsuitable for today’s electric cars, Edison’s nickel-iron batteries are still used for applications such as storing energy from renewable sources. They tend to last significantly longer than they lead-acid counterparts, and also have the advantage of not using lead; a poisonous heavy metal.
- 1897 – The Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia built the first fleet of EVs to be used as taxis. The vehicles were deployed on the streets of New York, and served residents until a catastrophic fire destroyed 300 of the 1,000-strong fleet in 1907. This event, combined with an economic downturn in the same year, collapsed the Carriage and Wagon Company.
- 1899 – The first hybrid car, running on a combination of gasoline and a battery, was invented by Ferdinand Porsche. In the same year, an electric car developed in Belgium broke the land speed record, by reaching 62 mph. This record went undisputed until 1902.
- 1900 – At the beginning of the twentieth century, electric cars accounted for 28% of the US market share. In the early days of motoring, electric and gasoline vehicles were locked in a struggle for dominance. Early motorists often preferred electric vehicles because they vibrated less, and produced less noise than their gasoline or steam powered counterparts. Although gasoline cars ultimately won out, electric car ownership is on the rise once again today.
The dominance of gasoline powered cars began around 1912, thanks to Henry Ford’s development of cheap mass production methods for this type of vehicle. Research into EVs didn’t take off again until the 1960s and 70s, in response to soaring oil prices and the now better understood impact of exhaust fumes on people and the environment.
In 1976, the US government authorised the Energy Department to conduct renewed research into electrical and hybrid vehicles. At the same time many manufacturers, including General Motors, were making strides producing their own electric vehicles. GM created a fleet of electric jeeps for the US postal service in a 1975 test program. NASA were heavily involved at this stage too; their electric Lunar Rover became the first manned vehicle to traverse the moon in 1971. Problems with range remained the main issue for EVs throughout the period, however.
The next significant strides in EV technology weren’t to come until the 1990s. The Clean Air Act Amendment passed in the US in 1990, encouraging manufacturers to both reduce the polluting effects of their gasoline vehicles, and to develop vehicles that ran on an alternative fuels – mainly, electricity. The legislation sparked research that resulted in EVs achieving previously unheard-of ranges – up to 60 miles in a single charge. Perhaps the best-known vehicle from this era of development is GM’s EV1. The model had a range of 80 miles per charge, and could accelerate from zero to 50 mph in seven seconds. Because of its high production costs, however, the EV sadly never reached the consumer market. Oil prices decreased once again, and the E1 was discontinued in 2001 as interest in EVs waned.
Now, in the 21st century, our interest in EVs has been piqued once again – mostly thanks to Tesla. The automotive company was founded by government loan in 2006, and has since achieved its goal of producing a luxury electric sports car with a staggering range of 200 miles in a single charge. Tesla now face stiff competition on the EV scene, as other manufacturers join the battle to produce the fastest EV with the best range. In 2018, Croatian manufacturer Rimac released the Concept Two; a fully electric vehicle with a range of 300 miles, which can also reach a top speed of over 250 mph.
In 2009, the US recovery act began to develop the infrastructure necessary to maintain electric cars, with the installation of 18,000 charging stations throughout the country. Despite their dismissal in favor of gasoline cars throughout much of their history, it seems that EVs could finally be taking their place as a practical and sustainable transport solution.
But What About Hybrids?
As their name suggests, hybrid vehicles run on a combination of gasoline and battery power. By combining these two sources, hybrids offer drivers the convenience of an internal combustion engine (long range and accessible refueling) with the economy of an electric vehicle.
There are a couple of different types of hybrid vehicle to be aware of:
- Parallel Hybrid Cars
Parallel hybrids are the most common type – the much-loved Toyota Prius is a parallel hybrid. They have both an engine and a battery-powered electric motor, and can use one at a time or both at once. At speeds of up to 15 mph, parallel hybrids use only the electric motor, reducing emissions and fuel consumption during city driving. At higher speeds, the gas engine kicks in too. Like most electric cars, parallel hybrids make use of regenerative braking technology to keep the battery topped up.
- Plug-in Hybrids
Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs), as their name suggests, can be plugged into a power source in order to charge their batteries, just like a completely electric car. They have larger batteries than their regular counterparts, with a bigger capacity. They tend to be more expensive to purchase, but sometimes government grants are available. The main advantage plug-ins offer over other hybrids is that they can be used as a purely electric vehicle for some of the time, making for even greater fuel economy than a standard hybrid. Because of their larger batteries, they can travel up to 30 miles on the electric motor alone.
- Range Extender Hybrids
While range extender hybrids have both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, the engine is only used to produce energy for the motor – it never powers the car directly.
Choosing a hybrid comes with a few key advantages:
- Hybrids allow you to reduce your emissions without going all-electric
- Hybrid vehicles come with certain tax benefits
- Hybrid vehicles are cheaper to run thanks to massively increased fuel efficiency
Notes for First Time Owners
As EVs become increasingly able to compete with their gasoline cousins, it only makes sense that more and more of us are making the decision to own one. Making the switch isn’t without its challenges, however. Below are some main differences to bear in mind:
- Charging and ‘Range Anxiety’
Many first-time EV drivers report a phenomenon known as ‘range anxiety’: the fear that they’ll run out of juice in the middle of nowhere and be unable to recharge. However, with just a little planning, this shouldn’t be an issue. Most EV owners charge their car overnight at home, and even with the lowest possible voltage, charging a totally flat battery, this charging time will be enough to get you 40 miles. For longer journeys, or if you live in an apartment and can’t access charming at home, a little more planning may be required. Luckily, there are thousands of charging stations throughout the country, and the handy site Plug Share makes it easy to locate stations in your area. Many EVs also make use of regenerative braking, which involves friction from braking being recovered and returned to the battery.
- Maintenance and Repairs
As we discovered earlier, EVs have far fewer moving parts than combustion engine vehicles so, basically, there’s a lot less to go wrong. Components in EVs tend to be easier to replace, and don’t wear out as fast as their conventional counterparts. New EV owners can expect fewer trips to the dealership, and you won’t need to perform regular oil checks.
- Driving Experience
EVs offer a very different driving experience to your usual internal combustion engine powered car. First off, you can expect to experience much punchier acceleration, thanks to multiple motors and the electric motor’s greater potential to produce high torque at low a rpm. They’re also easier to drive than a manual vehicle since they often go without a gearbox, and handle much like an automatic car in this regard. You can expect to brake less, too, since when you take your foot off the accelerator the vehicle slows down almost straight away – much like a bumper car – most drivers will need a little time to adjust to this. Finally, perhaps the most noticeable difference you’ll notice is how quiet EVs are. Even at high speeds, noise from the motors is minimal, which can take some getting used to!
Why Choose an Electric Car?
There are plenty of reasons why you might consider going electric for your next car:
- Environmental Reasons
As more and more of us attempt to reduce our impact on the planet, EVs could play an important role in keeping CO2 emissions to a minimum. Critics argue that, since much electricity is still produced by burning coal, that electric cars simply displace rather than reduce emissions, but this is a myth. Natural gas and coal power plants produce fewer emissions per unit of energy compared to internal combustion engines, and these emissions are kept away from heavily populated areas. As more and more electricity is produced through renewable means, this will be even less of an issue.
According to data from Auto Trader, Americans spend between $2,000 and $4,000 on gas every single year. This cost is all but eliminated when you purchase an EV. Of course, you can expect your electricity bill to go up, but electrical power is much cheaper than gas, and experts suggest that, taking reduced fuel and maintenance into account, the average electric car could be anywhere between 40% and 70% cheaper to run than a conventional vehicle. Although EVs are more expensive to buy up-front, there are also government tax credits to help you out if you decide to purchase one.
Maintaining Electric Cars
As mentioned earlier, maintaining an EV is somewhat different to maintaining a gasoline powered car.
- Finding an Engineer
Since EVs are not currently very common, finding a mechanic who can see to your car may be a challenge, and you may have to resort to the original dealership.
If you live in a house rather than an apartment block, you can have an outdoor charging port installed on your driveway, otherwise, you can use a designated charging station. There are a few different types of charger:
Home Charging – At home, you can use Level one or Level two charging. Level one comes from a standard 120V home supply, and can be drawn from any household outlet using the cable included with your car. Level two charging facilities can be installed at your home, and provide power at 240V, making for quicker charging times.
Public Charging – Charging stations vary in power, and there are three levels: level one offers 1 kW of power, and will take eight to 15 hours to recharge a standard 30 kWh battery. Level two offers 3kW – 8kW, and takes three to eight hours to fully charge. Level three offers 50 kW of power, and can charge a standard battery in 20 to 60 minutes. You can check which levels are available at charging stations near you using Plug Share.
Knowing what connector your EV has is vital since, unfortunately, there isn’t one universal connector. The most common connector is the Level 2 J1772 EV plug. All EVs in the USA and Canada can use this connector. For Level 3 charging, there are three connector types:
Which one your car has will depend upon where it was made.
A handy guide to all the different connector types can be found here. You can check in advance that a charging station has the correct connector for you car online, using a tool such as Plug Share. Each EV will also come with individual charging information in its vehicle handbook – it might take some getting used to, but with a good timing, EVs can be even more convenient than a gasoline car.
Charging times vary depending on the vehicle’s battery and the type of charger you are using. You can find a rough guide to charging times here.
Like any device with a battery, the ability of an EV to hold its charge will decrease over time. The battery is the single biggest and most important component in an EV, and will most likely need to be replaced at some point over the car’s lifetime. Many manufacturers will offer a five year warranty for your peace of mind, however, and current batteries will last for around 100,000 miles before they lose so much as 10% of their capacity.
- Safety Considerations
Almost all EVs currently on the market rely on lithium-ion batteries for their power, which poses a potential problem: these batteries have the potential to catch fire, or even explode in some very rare cases. The level of risk is roughly equivalent to the flammable potential of gasoline in conventional vehicles, though, and manufacturers are doing all they can to reduce the risks associated with batteries:
- Circuit breakers and fuses disconnect batteries in the event of a collision
- Liquid or air-cooling systems keep batteries at a safe, cool temperature
- Several smaller batteries are used, so if one does catch fire or explode, it’s isolated form the others
Experts from Volvo say with further developments, future EVs could be made even safer than gasoline cars.
Our top Three Electric Cars
Now that we know more about EVs, our next question might be which one to purchase. Below are three of the most popular EVs on the market right now:
Tesla Model 3
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best-selling electric car in the US in 2018 was manufactured by EV juggernaut Tesla; over 55,000 of their Model 3 were sold throughout the year. The Model 3 is a spacious sedan that will set you back $35,000. The standard model has a range of around 210 miles, which can be bumped up to 310 miles should you choose the larger-capacity battery option.
It can be charged at one of 9,500 Superchargers, which can fill up an empty battery in just over an hour. Besides its impressive mileage range, the car boasts some impressive stats. The larger battery version has a top speed of 140 mph, and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.1 seconds.
Inside, it’s as rich in features as you’d expect from a Tesla vehicle, including smartphone connectivity, radar controlled cruise, and steering assist. In fact, the hardware required for full autonomy is in place for the future when self-driving cars become a legislative reality. Although it’s futuristic, the Model 3 is intuitive to drive and as comfortable as your average mid-size sedan.
Chevrolet Bolt EV
Chevrolet may call to mind pick-up trucks rather than electric vehicles, but their EV offering, the Bolt, proved incredibly popular in 2018.
This model was among the first to offer drivers a range of more than 200 miles between charges (238 miles), and features a spacious cabin equipped with a host of features as standard. Among these are WiFi hotspot capabilities, and smartphone connectivity. The battery has an impressively high capacity of 60 kW, and can be charged at
Its top speed is somewhat lower than other competitors on the market, sitting at 93 mph, but it features the same quick acceleration we’ve come to expect from EVs, and can propel itself from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. Reviewers also report lively handling and a comfortably roomy interior. Finally, the attractive exterior offers drivers a sporty feel that’s too often the reserve of gasoline cars.
Our list just wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the world’s best-selling EV: the Nissan LEAF. In case you were wondering, LEAF is actually an acronym, standing for ‘Leading Environmentally Friendly affordable Family vehicle’ – a bit of a mouthful!
This incredibly popular car costs under $30,000 (even less when you take potential tax credits into account), and has a practical range of 150 miles per charge. 2018 saw the LEAF receive something of a face lift, shedding its bug-like exterior – reminiscent of a Renault Clio – in favor of a sleeker and more aggressive design.
With this change came others; under the hood, a 40 kW battery replaces the 30 kW component found in its 2017 predecessor, increasing horsepower from 107 to 147, and torque from 187 to 236 lb-ft. The car also boasts a feature called ProPilot Assist, which provides semi-autonomous driving. Behind the wheel, drivers can expect responsive acceleration, coupled with a quiet and refined drive.
The LEAF is often considered the best route in for new EV drivers, since it’s a relatively inexpensive option, which is consistent and reliable.
You may also like our review of the Best Electric Car For Kids
- How Electric Cars Work, How Stuff Works