Electric Cars Explained by Michael Sheridan
Like it or not we are being pushed towards buying electric cars faster than we thought we’d be.
Also known as electric vehicles (EVs) or battery electric vehicles (BEVs) the modern EV has been with us for 10 years. The Early adopters have been singing the praises of EVs for years and reveling in their car’s nerdy technical details. They invented a new and barely decipherable electric car language. Words and phrases like ‘kilowatt hours’, ‘regenerative braking’ and ‘CHAdeMO’ fall off the tongue like a concrete block. Hidden behind a cult-like enthusiasm was a lot of suffering caused by interacting with Ireland’s poor public car charging infrastructure, the dreaded ‘range anxiety’ and other issues. There is a famous line from an Irish TV ad where a man publicly admits “I don’t know what a tracker mortgage is!”. At some stage we all need to learn the basics. Let’s demystify ‘what an electric car is’ so you can buy a new EV with confidence.
Today’s EVs are much improved, have better range and are near effortless to drive. Even though the choice of electric cars is growing, the 25 models or so on sale right now is far from comprehensive if electric cars are to become the mainstream. Europe is the one doing the pushing as it wants all member states to be carbon neutral by 2050. Carmakers already face heavy fines if they don’t meet the ever-reducing average emissions targets. Not surprisingly fines are a great motivator for businesses and in 2020 a dozen or more new EVs will be added to the menu in Ireland. To help reach this noble emissions goal many governments are planning to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars in the not-too-distant future. The rest of the world is taking a slower or downright ‘no’ approach to any ban. The electrical infrastructure needed for EV is not globally available. Diesel and petrol engines create emissions, and these emissions relate directly to your car’s fuel economy. Any fuel-burning engine is relatively inefficient next to an electric motor. Engines produce varying amounts of nasty exhaust gases into the air - whereas electric cars don’t. When you drive an EV, it produces zero emissions. So why hasn’t the car industry put us in EVs sooner? Cost. It is very hard to turn a profit on an electric car due to the cost of manufacture and expensive battery components compared to a car with an internal combustion engine (ICE). We’re at peak engine development and all manufacturers make big profits with them. Scale is the answer to making EVs profitable.
There is lots to learn about EVs and also a lot of misinformation out there. Here are a few things you need to know before you take the plunge:
Is an EV hard to drive?
EVs are absolutely brilliant and easy to drive. All are automatic, so stick it in ‘D’ and off you go in near silence. Some EVs have an additional ‘B’ setting on the gear selector that enables added braking when you lift off the accelerator. EVs are really quiet inside and out - so much so they need an external noise generator to alert pedestrians to their presence. When you drive one for the first time you will be amazed at its near-instant response. When you press on the accelerator, all the car’s power and urge is instantly available. This is not the case with petrol or diesel engines where you have to rev them up to get maximum power.
How does an electric car move? It is quite simple instead of an engine there is an electric motor that turn its wheels. A washing machine has a lot in common with an electric car as it uses an electric motor to turn the big drum. You know when a wash goes on the spin cycle and you hear the whine slowly speed up - that is what happens when you accelerate in an EV. As you press the accelerator pedal you are speeding up its electric motor, turning the car’s wheels. When you lift off the accelerator pedal you can even regain some ‘kinetic’ energy back into the battery also. Most EVs have a single motor but some have two/dual motors. This means they have a motor for the front wheels and another one to turn the rear wheels. As a result, all-wheel-drive EVs can be incredibly quick and sure-footed as they get more grip from the road with tyres turned by the motors. Of course, two motors are more expensive than one and this is why they are found in more premium or performance models.
Where does the electric motor get its power?
Power to the motor comes from a big rechargeable battery pack that is hidden out of sight, usually under the car’s floor. Only mechanics will ever see it! The battery is huge compared to the little 12-volt car battery we are all familiar with (EVs have one of these also to do similar jobs). Generally, a rechargeable battery pack uses hundreds of lithium-ion battery cells stacked together (smartphones have lithium-ion batteries). Battery packs are heavy and while in the future we will see much lighter and more compact ‘solid-state’ batteries used in EVs - for now all EVs have to haul around more dead weight than a conventional ICE car.
How do you charge an EV?
The battery is recharged using a big cable you attach between the car and a home or public charging point. At home, most EVs can fully charge from near-empty overnight. A home has a set amount of regulated power it can access. This is often called single-phase whereas businesses can access more power, and this is often called three-phase electricity. You can charge an EV via a three-pin plug but the power available from a standard plug is low - so charging is very slow. A home EV charge point is essential as it can deliver much more power, up to 7 kilowatts and the best part is, it is grant-aided. Public charge points can deliver much more power (depending on their type) and this means less time spent charging. Slow, fast and rapid are some words used to describe public charge points. The car’s technical specification and ability to accept different rates of charge (through its on-board charger), will dictate the type and speed of charging you can do.
Electric car batteries vary in size, why?
Now, this is where it can get a little confusing. There is some basic maths to get your head around but once understood you’ll be fine. The capacity (size) of the rechargeable battery is measured in kWh or kilowatt hours, note the little ‘h’ in kWh. The higher the battery’s kWh number, the great capacity it has. Greater capacity in an electric car’s battery translates to greater driving range. Electric cars in general are described by their model name and then by their battery’s capacity. A Nissan Leaf is available with a choice of battery size. The cheaper 40kWh Leaf does not go as far as the more expensive 62kWh Leaf. Most electric cars have an average electricity consumption when driving of 16 to 18 kWh per 100 kilometres. This is the EV equivalent of litres per 100 kilometres with petrol or diesel cars. As a simple guide: a larger EV will need more power to move compared to a smaller/lighter EV. This is why large EVs need big battery packs to power their motors and deliver acceptable driving range.
Can EVs self-charge?
To a limited degree, yes. An electric car can recover some electrical energy when you use the brakes or when you lift off the accelerator. Initial braking by an EV doesn’t use the conventional ‘friction’ brakes that ICE cars use. Initially EVs use their electric motor to slow the car. Soft braking or lifting-off the accelerator generates a braking force as it generates electricity that goes back into the battery. Hard braking uses the traditional friction brakes (brake pads on discs). This regenerative way of slowing an EV is one reason why electric car servicing costs are incredibly low, as so few things wear out.
A fast car has a big engine with lots of horsepower (or hp), how do I know how powerful an EV is?
An EV’s power output is measured in the same way as petrol and diesel engines. The main difference is that there is no 2 or 3 litre engine-size number to consider - just the electric motor’s hp or kilowatt (kW) number. The bigger the number the more powerful the car is. Also just like any car the ratio between how heavy it is and how powerful its motor is will determine how fast and efficient the car is. Note, EVs in general are heavier than cars with engines.
Are EVs good for out-of-town driving?
EVs have zippy acceleration, which is great around town but the faster you go the more an EV will run out of urge – most have very modest top speeds. An EV’s true enemy is the open flat road. On free-flowing motorways and carriageways, there is no chance for an EV to regenerate electricity through regenerative braking plus the motor is running the whole time. Downhill stretches can regenerate some charge but EV drivers become very aware of topography as it impacts driving range. In stop-start traffic, city or town use an EV is at its most efficient. An EV uses minuscule electricity when it is not moving. An EV uses more electricity the faster it goes as aerodynamics come into play. With any car when you travel at speeds above 80km/h aerodynamic drag increase fuel consumption. Often you will see EVs doing at least 10% less than the posted speed limit on open roads in an effort to reduce power consumption. Most EVs will also have an ‘Eco’ or energy save mode you can select to maximise the car’s range. When on, these systems reduce the motors power and other electrical consumers e.g., air conditioning, while also restricting top speed to circa 90km/h.
What is an EV’s summer range and winter range?
In ideal weather conditions, basically an average Irish summer, an EV will be most efficient. Summer range is the most optimistic driving range from a full charge. With a considerate driving-style the figure is generally close to attainable. Cold wintery weather and electrical efficiency do not work well together. Also, in winter, drivers use the wipers, air conditioning, heated seats, heated windows, heated mirrors much more and these consume more electricity and affect range. Winter range quoted, though lower, will still be an optimistic figure. As a rule you can knock 20% off any range given and this will allow you drive the car normally, most of the time. EV drivers know the value of a good coat.
What is range anxiety?
You know that sinking feeling when you need to make a phone call and your mobile runs out of power? When an EV runs out of power, it stops, and you’re stuck. If you run out of fuel in a petrol or diesel, there are filling stations everywhere and if you run out on the road you can always walk to the nearest one and get a jerrycan of fuel - you can’t get a jerrycan of electricity! Choosing an EV with the right sized battery that can deliver in excess of the traveling range you need daily, is quite simply, essential.
Small EVs are cheaper, why?
2020 saw the arrival of some adorable small electric cars. The adorable and high-tech Honda-e and MINI Cooper Electric both are fun to drive, have four seats, don’t take up much road space, and are relatively affordable. The downside to their cuteness is that they have a restricted driving range. Compact design leaves little space to store batteries and these two EVs typify the new ‘Urban EV’ subclass that is ideal for frequent short trips and city use. EV’s with small battery packs have an upside and that is they pay for themselves sooner. If you need to regularly commute distances look elsewhere. As a rule, the smaller the battery capacity - the smaller the cost of production is and ultimately the asking price. The new Renault ZOE and Peugeot e-208 and its sister car the Opel Corsa-e are classed as small cars (superminis), yet all three deliver better range through their bigger battery packs and cost less than €30K. A EV’s size or class is coupled with its battery size determines it price. This explains why big EVs with big batteries are so expensive.
What are the servicing costs like?
Servicing costs are much lower than a car with an engine. An EV has fewer components to wear out or that need to be routinely be replaced. There’s no engine oil, oil filter or fuel filter or costly engine belts, spark plugs, and a myriad of things that go wrong with engines. There are some fluids and the usuals consumables like wiper blades etc. that will need servicing or replacement. The main cost will be tyres. EVs are heavy on their tyres because, well, they’re heavy! Specific EV tyres are often needed, designed to take the EV’s additional weight. They also need to have low-rolling-resistance properties to help maximise range. EV tyres can be expensive and should be budgeted for.
I commute, what EV should I buy?
You’ll need a small EV with a 40kWh battery or bigger. With a larger EV, you’ll need to go much larger with the battery size. The statistics say most motorists never do more than 80km a day, yeah right, try telling that to a commuter. The trick to commuting in an EV is having more than enough range from a full charge to do all the day’s driving and a bit more. This way you need never, or seldom, have to charge at a public charger. You’ll also be able to use the car’s creature comforts, guilt-free – like the heater!
Charging at home, on night rate electricity (ideally powered by renewable energy) is the most efficient ‘EV-way’… welcome to the cult!
This article is an independent review by Journalist Michael Sheridan. Michael Sheridan has been a Car of the Year Judge for 20 years, more recently a judge for Van of the Year.
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