Electric cars: How they work, their pros and cons
Everything you wanted to know about electric cars and more
So you’ve heard all about the electric car revolution, and you may even know someone with one. But you also have an awful lot of questions about what is, in no small way, a complete motoring revolution.
Charging, running costs, battery life and resale value are all hot topics. So here is our complete guide to electric cars to help you understand what it’s all about.
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What is an electric car?
The first thing to understand is what defines an electric vehicle or “EV”, for short.
It’s also important to refer to the “engine” of the car as a motor, as there’s no such thing as an electric engine.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrids are not true electric vehicles. They use normal petrol or diesel power alongside electric motors and batteries.
Read more: The rise of electric cars: An in depth look at a motoring revolution
How do electric cars work?
The electric motor generates turning force like a normal engine.
The big difference is that they don’t use gears. They use an electric current which makes the motor turn. No gear, no clutch; only acceleration and braking.
The other important thing to understand is regenerative braking. When you push the brake the momentum of the car puts charge back into the battery.
This means you get free power when you slow down.
What are the running costs of an electric car?
This question is a very broad one and depends a lot on the type of car. But generally, using electricity over normal fuel is cheaper.
But how much does it cost to charge an electric car? Well, 100 miles will cost roughly £4, depending on energy prices. A petrol or diesel car over the same distance would be around £15.
There is no congestion charge for electric vehicles - a great saving for London drivers.
But the big saving is when it comes to road tax - there isn’t any.
You do still need to register the car as though you were going to pay tax, but the amount is zero.
Read more: The real cost of EV ownership
Electric car insurance
Getting insurance for an electric car is as easy as any other kind of car. The only snag is that it might be a little more expensive.
An EV requires specialist parts. Sourcing or repairing these will be pricey for insurers, pushing up premium costs.
There's no doubt that insurers are becoming more EV focused though.
For example, some have started covering charging cables, boxes and adaptors. Recovery to the nearest UK charge point is also offered too.
It's early days, but as demand increases it's likely EV insurance will become more competitive.
In any case it’s worth shopping around for the best price. Check out our guide for more info on being an eco-minded driver.
Read more: How to be a greener driver: Eco-driving tips
How much do electric cars cost?
It may be cheap to run an EV, but at present they cost more to buy than a comparable petrol or diesel vehicle.
As they become more popular, prices should go down.
Some manufacturers offer incentives too. Companies like Nissan and Renault provide battery lease plans. You buy the car but lease the battery, saving around £4,000 in some cases.
Electric car battery life
The elephant in the room here is deprecation: all electric vehicles lose a lot of money when they are new.
This is partly because the battery life gets shorter over time.
For example, a three-year-old car may offer a shorter range than when it was brand new.
As battery leasing and replacement options develop, this issue should resolve itself.
It’s clear that wear and tear is far less than a normal car due to fewer moving parts.
In fact, it's likely that a used electric car will be in better condition than a petrol car with the same mileage.
Range anxiety and charging
In the EV discussion, this is the second biggest issue.
The term range anxiety describes a very real fear of running out of battery and knowing where to charge it up.
This is improving quickly, so fast, in fact, it’s hard to discuss in detail as it may change within a few months.
Early electric cars would struggle to do 30-40 miles. Now there are models on the market that will do 300 on a single charge.
Each model and make offers different ranges. And some offer range booster options like bigger batteries and more.
High-end manufacturers like Tesla and BMW offer some impressive range stats.
New cars like the Nissan Leaf are offering ever growing ranges of around 150 miles too.
The actual act of charging is very simple; you plug it in. But how long you wait varies a lot with the car and how much charge you need to put in.
Small top-up charges can be very useful and installing a wall charging point at home is essential.
But where do you charge when you're out and about? Luckily the charging infrastructure is growing and shouldn’t be a problem in a few years’ time.
Who are electric cars for?
As with all cars, look into your car usage and find one that suits. It could be that right now an EV may not work for you.
If you do a lot of long drives or unpredictable journeys then a plug-in hybrid might be more suitable.
But for people who commute shorter distances or use their cars as a run-around, they can be perfect.
Higher end models are becoming better at longer runs. They could still be a viable option for all except drivers with the highest mileage.
There is no doubt the EV is the future, being part of the answer to many of our environmental worries. And they offer a smooth, powerful and easy mode of transport.