How Do Electric Cars Work?

  • BMW Hybrid Concept
    How Do Electric Cars Work?
  • Toyota Prius
    How Do Electric Cars Work?
  • Outlander PHEV
    How Do Electric Cars Work?

Seems that electric and hybrid cars are everywhere, especially given the desire to want to move away from traditional cars that run on petrol and diesel. Have you ever stopped to think How Do Electric Cars Work? Where did the original idea for an electric car come from? and What is the future for electric cars?

Where it all began

Almost one hundred years ago, there was a deal between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford for making electric cars that fell apart due to the fact that 1914 battery technology was unable to do the job. After that, cars ran on gas almost exclusively, driving us directly into the global warming mess we currently find ourselves in. Ford has now joined companies such as Chevrolet and Tesla for mass producing electrical vehicles. The craze was started by Toyota with Prius, its gas-electric hybrid, while hydrocarbons were abandoned altogether by the Tesla Elon Musk with its all-electrical Model S. In the meantime, plug-in hybrids are a type of shotgun marriage between these two. However, the plugin Prius hybrid from Toyota is significantly different from the Chevy Volt. So what is the purpose of all the different technology being used? Let’s tour the most recent hybrid and electric car technology.

What Is This Technology?

Electric cars date back all the way to the early 1800’s. However, Thomas Parker, an English tram magnate, invented the first practical one in 1884. At the turn of the 20th century there was a mini golden age for EVs, which peaked in 1912, when in the U.S. alone 34,000 were produced – which is around the equivalent of 2002’s entire electric/hybrid production. These kind of cars were very popular in cities because of their limited range and simpler operation. They were marketed to women frequently. However, with the development of highways and discovery of vast petroleum reserves, long-range cars running on gasoline took over. By the mid 1910s, a majority of companies stopped manufacturing EVs with the exception of niche applications such as golf carts and forklifts.

After that, electric car development practically stopped altogether, with the exception of a couple of stunted attempts such as the one made by Henney Kilowatt. There was some research and development that did continue. In 1967 the AMC Amitron was an early attempt to build a hybrid-electric car. This was first car in the US that used an energy regeneration brake. The concept was for braking energy to be used for recharging the car’s battery. It was pursued later in several other experimental vehicles from Volvo, Audi and others.

It hasn’t proven to stem the tide of gasoline powered vehicles, despite the fact that in virtually every way modern electric cars are vastly superior. EV drivetrains are much simpler, given that liquid cooling, complex transmissions, and other accessories are not needed. EVs are much more efficient as well, utilizing approximately 90 percent of power that is stored within their batteries, in contrast to the 30-35 percent achieved by gas vehicles. EVs can, in fact, be built for much less than gas cars, with the exception of one issue: the battery, which is expensive and can store only 5 percent of the energy of gasoline by weight.

The best batteries these days for cars are lithium-ion models (which are similar those found in many laptops). Their energy density is decent, but they are highly flammable and expensive. It is estimated, for example that the battery for the Tesla Model S costs around $15,000, which is about 20 percent of its total $70,000 purchase price. (With its forthcoming Gigafactory Telsa is hoping to get this down to $8,000). New technology for making batteries cheaper and more efficient is tantalizing close, however it hasn’t been commercialized yet.

Who Are The Hybrid And EV Players?

Birth Of The Hybrid

The hybrid craze was started in 1997 by Toyota with the Prius, when it was launched into the Japanese market with great fanfare. In its home country, the car was a great success, exceeding the expectations of Toyota, with its 18,000 units in sales during its first year. In the meantime, other car manufacturers introduced EVs into the U.S. from 1997 to 1999. However, sales were poor and they were dropped quickly. The first into the U.S. to introduce a hybrid was Honda in 1999 with the its two-door Insight. The next year, Toyota’s Prius was introduced in the U.S.

With the Prius and Insight boasting 52 and 61 mpg (EPA) respectively in the city, they became the go-cars for those going green. In 2009, Prius sales exceeded the 12 million mark, while most of the other manufacturers later launched hybrid-electric cars, including Porsche, Volkswagen, Chevrolet and Ford.

In 2008, Tesla’s all-electric Roadster was launched by PayPal magnate Musk. It was the first car produced using lithium-ion batteries. Although the chassis wasn’t even built by the company, other manufacturers such as Chevrolet stated that the Roadster was the inspiration for pursuing their own commercial EVs. In 2010 both the Nisan Leaf (pure EV) and Chevy Volt (hybrid EV) were both launched. This was followed by the Toyota RAV4 EV, BMW ActiveE, Ford Focus Electric, Volvo C30 Electric and others. In 2012 Tesla launched its Model, which many consider to be the most famous of all electric cars.

How Does A Hybrid Car Work?

All electric and hybrid vehicles utilise regenerative braking for recovering braking power. It is stored inside the battery. However, there are several different hybrid drivetrains utilised in modern EVs and hybrids. Parallel hybrids, such as Honda’s Insight and Civic, are gas-powered cars that have a small electric motor that connects in parallel to the transmission with the internal combustion engine (ICE). At highway speeds, these vehicles operate efficiently, but for stop-and-go driving not as much.

The Chevy Volt is a kind of “series” plug-in hybrid car. The vehicle’s drivetrain is completely electric. The gas engine just recharges the battery using a generator. During recharging, due to the efficiency that is lost, series hybrids are not as efficient on highways, but for stop-and-go driving in the city are better. Finally, cars such as the Toyota Prius utilize a combination of parallel and series systems for operating efficiency at both highway and city speeds – who due to the extra parts are more expensive.

Plug-in hybrids such as the Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid or Chevy Vol are hybrids that have a battery and charging port large enough for allowing all-electric driving over longer distances. For instance, the Prius on a three-hour charge off of a regular outlet is able to go 11 miles, while the Volt on a 10 to 16 hour charge can go 38 miles.

What About EVs?

Although EVS are simple, there charging designs, battery and drivetrain can vary greatly. The Tesla Model S is a rear-wheel-drive, rear-engine vehicle with one electric induction motor. The Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, is a front-wheel-drive, front-engine vehicle that has a synchronous electric motor. The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive, on the more extreme end, has a total of four electric motors, each located on a wheel, which produces a total of 740 horsepower.

A majority of EVs can be charged over night off of a standard socket to near-full battery or charge at 240 volts at around half that time. There is an optional dual charger with the Tesla Model S that is able to produce 58 miles of traveling per every hour of charge. Free Superchargers are also offered by Tesla that are able to charge a battery in 20 minutes to half-full at 103 stations around the United States, and have many more planned. In addition with Tesla, it only takes 90 seconds to replace the battery with a full one at certain service stations.

Why Is This Important?

Fossil-fueled powered vehicles have played a significant role in acidification of oceans, rising temperatures and other detrimental environmental side effects. They have also produced a major foreign oil habit for the U.S., and the sellers of oil aren’t friendly countries always.

However, even if geo-politics isn’t a concern of yours, there are numerous benefits to greener cars. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that certain hybrid models are less expensive now to run compared to non-hybrid models. EVs are often quieter compared to gas cars, due to no internal combustion and lower weight. The whole front of electric cars may be crumple zones, which in collisions makes them safer. Even when alone, you can frequently legally drive a plug-in hybrid or EV in an HOV lane.

PUre plug-ins and electric cars are much more expensive (due to the large batteries), which makes it harder to save money. However, you can receive a $7,500 federal tax credit for a majority of EV as well as some of the plug-in hybrids such as the Chevy Volt, and some states such as California are offering $1,500 for plug-in hybrids and $2,500 for EVs on top of the federal tax credit. For example, the Nissan Leaf costs around $30,000, however the price can be reduced to $20,000 after the state and federal rebates. According to Nissan you will also save around $4,000 in gasoline over a period of five years, giving it an effective price of around $16,000. When it comes to maintenance it is difficult to know since EVs haven’t been out on the roads that long. However, the vehicles are a lot simpler and should be less expensive to keep up eventually.

What Is The Argument Against?

With hybrid and electric vehicles there are sticky issues involved. The batteries are expensive to replace, hard to dispose of and don’t last forever. The heat-resistant battery backs that come with the Nissan Leaf cost $5,500, while the battery on the Tesla Model S is estimated to cost $12,000 to $15,000 in order to replace it. Th batteries on both of these cars come with eight-year warranties. However, after several years the charging capacity considerably diminishes. Because of their immaturity, both EVs and hybrids currently are expensive to maintain. Lastly, depending on the area where you live, an EV’s eco-friendly aspect might be questionable. If coal powers your electric grid, then you are still charging your EV from the grid, and therefore contributing still to global warming. There is an entire set of pollution problems with nuclear plants.

As the number of electric/hybrid vehicles out on the road continues to increase, the cost of both maintenance and batteries continues to fall. Tesla is planning on reducing the price to around $8,000 for its Model S battery with Panasonic at its Gigafactory. Eventually battery science – just like recent advances in lithium anode – will be commercialized, which will reduce the cost and weight. In just a couple of years, hybrids and EVs have evolved significantly, with improved power, endurance and batteries. This all came about due to competition, rebates and regulations motivating the car makers to continue to improve the state of the art. As the prices continue to go down, they will be inexpensive enough eventually that EV government incentives will be completely dropped. Everyone will win when that happens.

Do You Want Even More?

You can hardly touch your keyboard without running in a website about hybrid or EV vehicle technology, thanks to the level of interest being so sky high. However, there are a few sites that really standout. There is the Autoblog Green site, from our Autoblog sister site, which details all things hybrid and EV. There are also Hybrid Cars, Clean Techhnica and Green Car Reports. A majority of car builders these days have both EV and hybrid models. However, a couple of standouts are the Tesla Model S, the Chevy Volt, Fusion Hybrid SE, Ford Focus Electric and Nissan Leaf. To determine if you can afford any of these, there is a hybrid calculator from the US Department of Energy that is pretty useful. There is also a list of federal rebates for plug-in hybrids and EVs. There is a useful map of the various state tax rebates that are available from the Plug In America coalition. Finally, click here: where we cover a wide selection of electric and hybrid vehicles.

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