Electric cars are plug-in automobiles propelled by at least one electric engine. Generally, they store power inside rechargeable batteries. They’ve been popular among drivers worldwide amidst increasing oil prices and a desire to reduce gas emissions. With the technological advances to batteries most recently, consumers have several more reasons that owning an electric vehicle is appealing.
In 2017, there were more than three million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles in the world with the Nissan Leaf remaining as the highest selling production EV to date. Following closely behind is the Tesla Model S, but many manufacturers are jumping into the competition.
Why are They Called Electric Cars?
Electric cars, otherwise known as electric vehicles (EV) refer to any automobile that used an electric motor to propel itself. This doesn’t require that the only power source be an onboard battery, but it does refer to the majority of them. Technically, a car featuring solar panels would be seen as a solar vehicle while vehicles with electric and gasoline power are termed hybrid vehicles. While the name electric car is given technically just to battery-operated cars, many people confuse them with a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV).
History of Electric Cars
20 years before the arrival of the Model T, the first production electric vehicle made its appearance in 1884. Thomas Parker designed it in London using a specially created set of rechargeable batteries. Just a few years later, a Flocken Elektrowagen was produced by Andreas Flocken, a German inventor. At the time, electric cars were a preferred method of transportation. They offered a higher comfort level than a gasoline-driven automobile plus they were easier to operate.
It wasn’t until 1897 that the U.S. had their first commercial electric car. A fleet of twelve Electrobat II vehicles came to New York City during a project by Philadelphia’s Electric Storage Battery Company. They were used as hansom cabs.
Through the early 20th-century, the leading producers of EVs in America were Columbia, Anthony Electric, Anderson, Baker, Riker, Edison, Bailey Electric, Milburn, and a few others. The biggest perks about their vehicles were that they didn’t produce a lot of noise and they never required gear changes.
Some advances in ICE (internal combustion engines) during the early 20th-century led to fewer advantages of an electric car. Gasoline automobiles had a greater range and quick refueling times. This made them more popular, especially since gasoline was relatively easy to find at the time. Then, in 1912, the electric starter motor was manufactured which replaced the laborious job of hand-cranking a car.
Return of the Electric Car
During the early 1990s, CARB (California Air Resources Board) starting pushing for a lower-emission, fuel-efficient vehicle to help the environment. The automakers responded by creating a Chrysler TEVan, GM EV1, S10, EV pickup truck, Ford Ranger EV truck, Nissan Altra EV wagon, Honda EV Plus hatchback, plus the Toyota RAV4 EV.
Tesla Motors, a California-based electric automaker, started development of their vehicles in 2004. The first production car was the Roadster in 2008. It was the first production all-electric vehicle that was highway legal and used lithium-ion batteries. It’s also the first production electric car that traveled more than 200 miles on a single charge.
By 2017, Tesla reached 250,000 global sales. This meant they were catching up to Nissan who achieved 300,000 sales by the beginning of 2018. Since then, several countries are considering a ban on the sale of diesel or gasoline powered vehicles. Some of them include:
- Norway (2025)
- China (2030)
- Germany (2030)
- India (2030)
- Britain (2040)
- France (2040)
Cost of Owning an Electric Car
By 2018, it was determined that owning an EV was less expensive than owning a gasoline counterpart; mainly because of the energy and repair cost. The downside is that most electric vehicles costed more than others to purchase initially.
One of the biggest reasons consumers give for not purchasing an EV is the upfront cost. That’s why many governments around the world have set up tax credits, incentives, and subsidies to counteract the investment of an electric car purchase.
About 4/5 of all electric vehicles in American are leased instead of purchased. That’s because most people feel they aren’t a good investment. Studies done in 2018 showed that 2014 compact EVs were only worth 23% of the original sticker price while combustion engine cars were worth 41% on average. While AAA determined that it’s far cheaper to operate an EV, they do depreciate the fastest.
EVs and the Environment
There are many benefits to owning an EV and the major one is the impact on the environment. They offer a significant reduction in air pollution when compared to an internal combustion automobile. There aren’t any harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen, lead, ozone, hydrocarbons, or VOCs coming from the tailpipe. This reduces local pollution, especially in a city environment.
The clean air only seems to affect the local environment though, because some of the generation plants might contribute to the pollution of the environment. Depending on the electricity source used to produce the cars and recharge the batteries, there could even be a more dangerous effect.
In 2014, Nissan proudly announced their Leaf owners racked up over 600 million miles in their vehicles which translated to saving almost 400 million pounds of CO2 emissions.
Performance of an EV
One of the biggest concerns someone looking to purchase an EV has is whether or not the car will perform up to their standards. Electric motors offer higher power-to-weight ratios and the batteries supply a large current to support them. While it’s normal to find some electric cars with tiny engines and modest acceleration, most of them have decent powertrains and an acceptable amount of acceleration.
Some vehicles also use a direct motor-to-wheel configuration that increases power as well. On top of that, this design intensifies traction.
A gasoline engine uses 15% of its fuel energy to move the car and power accessories. Diesel engines reach efficiency levels of 20%. Electric vehicles, on the other hand, boast of more than 90% efficiency. It’s clear to see that the electric cars are more efficient than any internal combustion engine. Part of that is because they don’t idle. The regenerative braking systems also recover up to a fifth of the car’s energy that’s normally lost when braking.
Safety of Electric Cars
There’ve been some concerns over the safety of electric vehicles in the past.
Just like regular car engines can, the electric batteries have the potential to catch on fire during mechanical failure or after a crash has occurred. There’ve been fire incidents reported, but less often per mile than a traditional car.
GM led a training exercise in numerous cities through the U.S. for first responders to learn the proper way to handle an electrical powertrain. Various manufacturers also created manuals to give the first responders details on how to handle the vehicle and occupants if a crash occurs.
Having the batteries stored below the passenger lowers the center of gravity to the vehicle. This increases overall stability, reducing the risk of losing control. Some vehicles also use low-rolling resistance tires which offer less grip.
Because EVs make less noise on the road, there’s a concern over the safety of pedestrians. Visually-impaired or blind people rely on the sounds to cross streets. That’s why many governments have passed legislation to regulate minimum sounds on electric vehicles.
Nissan was the first to employ a Pedestrian system sound in their Leaf. There’s one for forward movement and another for when the car’s in reverse. Now, most manufacturers employ some sort of warning sound.
On the other hand, EV and anti-noise advocates argued that creating artificial alerts increase the pollution of noise in communities.
Charging an EV
To maintain the battery charge, most vehicles require an overnight charging at the owner’s home. Otherwise, many public charging stations provide a fast refuel. While most any charging station works with any car, the Tesla line of vehicles uses a proprietary charger, but some converters make it compatible with a regular station.
Over time, the lithium-ion batteries might degrade, but it generally takes several years before it’s an issue. In 2015, Nissan stated that a fraction of a percent of their batteries needed to be replaced. Many of their cars drove over 100,000 miles without requiring a new battery.
There are other methods of storing energy other than with a battery. Flywheel or supercapacitor devices also offer capacity while providing fast charging and less volatility. They might one day take over in place of the batteries.
Electric vehicles which use the sun for energy generally have photovoltaic cells inside the solar panels which convert the energy into electric and charge their battery.
Sales of Electric Cars
By 2017, there’ve been over three million highway-legal electric vehicles sold worldwide. This means that 0.15% of the cars on the road are electric.
The Nissan Leaf remains the bestselling electric car of all time with Tesla nipping at their heels.
Many countries have established tax credits and grants to consumers that purchase an electric car. The United States offers tax credits totaling up to $7,500 while many states provide their own incentives. The UK established a Plug-in Car Grant that offers almost $6,000 to consumers.
On top of that, U.S. also committed to spending $2.4 billion on new grants to help with developing more technologies for electric vehicles and their batteries.
When one thinks about motorsports, they often imagine loud, revving engines and the smell of fuel in the air. What many people don’t know is that there’s an entire circuit of electric motorsports. Sometimes they’re referred to as electric motor racing, or simply just electric racing instead. This motorsport consists of racing against other electric-powered cars in competition.
Electric cars hold several land speed records. On top of that, electric-based races have been formed for cars and motorcycles alike.
First Land Speed Records
Starting in 1898, there were many times that an EV won a land speed record. In 1899, La Jamais Contente drove 62 mph making it the first road car to achieve that status. It featured two Postel-Vinay motors that produced 68 horsepower.
Drag racing electric vehicles is a recognized sport. The car starts at a standstill and then attempts to achieve the highest speed over a given short distance. Sometimes they race against typical gasoline vehicles. The NEDRA keeps track of all the worldwide records.
During the first season of racing, all the cars were supplied by Spark Racing Technology. The vehicles were named Spark-Renault SRT 01E. The electric-propelled motors were the same as the one used by a McLaren P1 supercar.
Formula E vehicles have at least 250 horsepower and are able to go from 0-60 mph in a mere three seconds. Their maximum speed is 140 mph, but the noise levels exceed 80 dB which is higher than most petrol vehicles. Generators that recharge the batteries use glycerine to power themselves.
During the Silverstone Circuit’s Formula Student race in 2013, the ETH Zurich won while racing cars that had combustion engines. Then, in 2015, another EV won Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. By 2017, an electric-driven vehicle drove in the Paris-Dakar Rally and drove the entire 5,600 miles through Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay. The car featured 340 horsepower and used a 150kWh battery.
Isle of Man TT
In the Isle of Man TT, the TT Zero races for a lap, which is almost 38 miles long. This Snaefell Mountain Course is specifically designed for motorcycles powered without carbon-based fuel and release zero noxious or toxic emissions.
The first race in 2010 was won by a MotoCzysz E1pc driven by Mark Miller. The race took just over 23 minutes and the bike drove an average speed of 96 mph. Most of the riders also compete on motorcycles with combustion engines so they’re already experienced on the circuit.
Over the years, the lap speeds continue to improve at a rate of about two mph each year. As the technology matures, the electric bikes get closer to combustion engine speeds and might even surpass them.
FIA World Endurance Championship
Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) organized the FIA World Endurance Championship. It started in 2010 and was the first endurance racing series since the World Sportscar Championship stopped in 1992.
There are multiple classes of vehicles racing from the sports prototypes to production-based grand tourers. Titles are given to the top drivers and manufacturers throughout the season.
Ben Bowlby designed the Nissan ZEOD RC which featured a hybrid electric drivetrain and lithium-ion batteries. During the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, the ZEOD RC needed to retire because of a gearbox issue. Prior to that, it hit a goal of reaching speeds exceeding 186 mph plus it completed a lap solely on electric power.
World Rallycross Championship (WRX)
The WRX is slotted to being all-electric racing by 2020. These electric cars will have four-wheel-drive and an output of 671 horsepower. The manufacturers plan to supply the bodywork and powertrain to be used with a common battery and chassis.
Global Rallycross Championship
The Global Rallycross Championship, which is based in America, plans to add a new electrics class during its 2019 racing season.
The Future of EV Racing
Because EV powertrains offer several advantages over a combustion engine, there is a bright future for racing. These engines provide superior power delivery plus exceptional dynamics, even more on a motorbike. The disadvantage comes during longer races because of range. That’s why the majority of races occur over short, intensive circuits like hill climbs. Electric cars have no trouble competing for limited distance events. For the longer, endurance racing, the hybrid powertrain works best and has proven to be successful.
Because most countries are attempting to do away with gasoline engines in the future, it only makes sense that we’ll continue to see more EVs in racing during the years to come.
Fun Facts about Electric Cars
1 – There are only a couple of moving parts located under the hood in comparison to hundreds in an internal combustion engine. That means there’s less to replace or repair which keeps the maintenance cost low. Even the brake pads last longer because of the regenerative braking which converts the energy into power that can be stored in the battery.
2 – Because EVs work through non-combustion ways, the cars have instant torque while at zero RPM. Even the best gasoline-driven supercars can’t do that.
3 – The battery is the most expensive aspect of an EV. With more advancements in technology, the price continues to go down.
4 – Eventually, it will be possible to use an EV as a backup power generator when the power’s out.
5 – There are six categories of EVs. The BEVs (Battery EVs) run on electric batteries and motors and have a mile range up to 200. The PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid EVs) use a rechargeable battery, internal combustion engine, and electric motor combination. They run up to 40 miles in electric mode. The HEVs (Hybrid EVs) use smaller batteries and internal combustion engines. They accelerate up to 40 mph. EREVs (Extended Range EVS) use internal combustion engines and rechargeable batteries and get up to 40 miles on a charge. The NEVs (Neighborhood EVs) use batteries and have a max speed of 30 mph. Finally, the NREVs (Non-Road EVs) use rechargeable batteries, electric motors, and are used at airports, seaports, plus some manufacturing plants.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which electric car is the best? Top choices include the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, BMW i3, Volkswagen e-Golf, Tesla Model X, Hyundai Ioniq EV, Tesla Model S, and the Chevy Bolt EV.
How do electric cars charge? EV owners can charge their cars at home with a 110-volt wall plug. There are also public stations in most major cities. Libraries often offer free 100-volt plug-ins, shopping centers have free 240-volt plug-ins and Tesla charging stations offer 480-volt superchargers. There are also numerous locations in many cities that provide charging services for a fee.
Do electric cars need oil changes? One of the perks of driving an EV is that maintenance is minimum. There’s no need for oil changes simply because no oil is used in the engine. There’s also no spark plugs, air filters, or fan belts to worry about.
Do electric cars have transmissions? They have a drivetrain, but it’s different than with a conventional vehicle. Internal combustion engines require a multi-speed gearbox that has several ratios, but the majority of EVs have a single-speed transmission. The electric motor delivers maximum torque while operating at zero RPM. It doesn’t need to disconnect from the drivetrain to idle, so one speed is plenty.
Are electric cars safe? They don’t carry gasoline which makes them safer on one level, but they have their own set of safety concerns. The batteries always have the potential to start on fire, but precautions are being taken to prevent this from happening.
Will electric cars overload the power grid? If everyone ran out today and purchased an EV it would most likely overload the network. Over time, the EV uptake would level out the daily demand for electricity while storing renewable energy in the batteries.