Electric vehicles (EVs) used to be a small niche in the automotive world. However, they’ve been gradually getting more mainstream in recent years. With more options on the market with more useful ranges and affordable pricing, EVs are quickly becoming practical alternatives to traditional gas-powered cars for a broader range of drivers.
How do electric vehicles work?
The nuts and bolts of an electric vehicle are actually quite simple. An electric car uses an electric motor to turn the wheels, and a lithium-ion battery pack usually feeds it. There are typically two motors in an EV with all-wheel drive; one for the front wheels and another for the rear wheels.
EV motors are usually AC synchronous electric motors. A controller delivers power from the battery pack to the motor (or motors). The driver uses the accelerator pedal like a traditional gas pedal, but it controls a pair of variable resistors that tell the controller how much power to send to the motor.
Like with any electrical system, the battery’s juice is gradually drained as the motor uses energy. Every electric car has some kind of gauge estimating how many miles of range it has left in place of a traditional fuel gauge. When your electric vehicle is in your garage or at a charging station, you need to plug it in to replenish the battery.
Types of EVs
Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)—Sometimes known as a battery electric vehicle, or BEV like the Tesla Model 3, is another way of describing an all-electric car. A BEV, or simply EV for “electric vehicle,” runs on electricity alone and doesn’t have a gas engine.
Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV)—A plug-in hybrid or “PHEV” like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid has a gas engine and an electric motor connected to a battery. When the battery runs out, the gas engine kicks in. The benefit of a PHEV is the elimination of range anxiety since you can top off the gas tank at any gas station.
Hybrid—A conventional hybrid like the Toyota Prius uses a gas engine assisted by an electric motor. Unlike a PHEV, a conventional hybrid cannot run on electricity alone for any significant distance, but it generally uses much less gas than a standard, non-hybrid car.
Every EV and PHEV has an official electric range and MPGe rating from the EPA. The electric range is pretty self-explanatory; this is how long an EV can drive on electricity alone before the battery depletes. EVs with a range of over 200 miles are getting more common and include cars like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and EUV, the Volkswagen ID.4
and the Nissan
Leaf Plus. Some even achieve a range over 300 miles, including most Tesla
models and the Ford
PHEVs generally have lower electric ranges than EVs because they have less space dedicated to their battery packs. For example, the Hyundai
Ioniq Plug-in Hybrid has an electric range of 29 miles before the battery is drained and the gas engine kicks in — but the Hyundai Ioniq Electric has an electric range of 170 miles.
MPGe is a little more complicated. It’s a way of measuring how many miles an electrified car can travel using the same amount of energy produced by burning one gallon of gasoline, which is 33.7 kWh. For example, the Chevrolet Bolt EV has a combined city/highway 120 MPGe rating. That means it can travel an average of 120 miles when its electric powertrain uses 33.7 kWh worth of energy.
All of this to say, EVs use energy much more efficiently than even the most fuel-efficient gas-powered cars.
Pros of an EV
Environmentally friendly — One of the most attractive benefits of an electric vehicle is reducing your carbon footprint by driving a car with no tailpipe emissions.
Low fuel costs — The cost of powering an electric vehicle is significantly lower than even the most fuel-efficient gas-powered cars.
Tax credits — Depending on where you live and which electric car you buy, federal, state, and local tax credits can significantly bring down the cost of an EV.
Low maintenance — Since they have fewer moving parts than a car with a traditional gas engine, EVs are generally lower-maintenance than a regular gas-powered car.
Cons of an EV
Battery life — EV range is getting better all the time, but it’s still a limitation that electric cars can’t escape.
Limited choices — While the world of EVs is constantly growing, the variety of electric vehicles available is still pretty limited. For example, the first mainstream electric pickup trucks like the Ford F-150 Lightning haven’t even hit the market yet, and the only EVs in the U.S. with a starting MSRP under $30,000 are small hatchbacks like the Nissan Leaf. Also, there are many EVs that aren’t sold in all 50 states.
Long charging times — Even the quickest charging times are no match for the speed of a gas pump filling a fuel tank. If you need to travel many miles in a short amount of time, prepare for a lot of waiting around to charge up.
Is an EV right for you?
Whether an electric car is right for you depends on a few things. The biggest thing to consider is whether you have someplace to plug it in overnight. If you have your own garage with a power outlet, then you’re in business. For most drivers, plugging in an EV or PHEV overnight is plenty of charging time for your daily driving needs.
If you live in an apartment with no access to a power outlet overnight or there isn’t much of a public charging infrastructure where you live, then EV ownership would be challenging. Another thing to consider is whether you have access to state or local tax incentives that make buying an EV in the first place more affordable.
If you’re considering making the big switch to an electric car, do a little research. Take a look at what it would cost to install a charging station in your garage, what your local charging infrastructure looks like, and whether there are any nice EV incentives where you live. Most importantly, look at the electric vehicles on the market right now to see if any are right for you.
This story originally ran on Autotrader.com.