Why go electric?
Updated: May 2
Behind the trending electric vehicle technology
by Chase Plank
Electric vehicles are everywhere nowadays and with the help of new age automobile companies, it is easy to see why something so innovative has become trending.
But electric vehicles are not recent technology, with the first crude electric vehicle being developed all the way back in 1832.
Toyota pushed the “electric vehicle” to the forefront as its Prius became the world’s first mass-produced petrol-electric hybrid vehicle in the late 1990s.
Since the Prius market began taking off in the United States in the 2000s, other companies have recognized the need for and popularity of zero emission vehicles.
Tesla vastly improved both the technology and the design of the Electrical Vehicle, making it both practical and cool to own one.
Tesla released its first consumer friendly production car in 2012, the Tesla Model S. This vehicle has such a strong following that the vehicle has delivery estimates of up to 14 weeks to this day.
But in recent years even traditional American car companies like Chevrolet and Ford have begun dipping their toes into what electric power is capable of - including offering their most popular trucks as EV.
Ford will be offering its sporty 2022 F-150 Lightning as an EV only option and Chevrolet is following with the production of the 2024 Silverado EV
Policy Advice reports there are more than 5.6 million electric vehicles in the world, pushed ahead by a 64% increase in electric car manufacturing that bumped production from from 3.4 to 5.6 million EVs.
There are four different types of electric vehicles. Kelly Blue Book defines the four as battery powered electric vehicles (BEV), hybrid electric vehicles (HEV), plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV), and fuel cell electric vehicles that run on compressed hydrogen (FCEV). The FCEV is only widely used in California because of the lack of public fuel stations.
The BEV runs on a true electric motor, lacking any form of internal combustion and using zero gasoline to function. The Tesla Model S, X, 3, and Y are good examples of this.
An HEV runs on a combination of an electric motor as well as an accompanying combustion engine. These vehicles use a regenerative braking system that creates and stores electric energy as the vehicle slows down. This allows the vehicle to run on electric power in order to add fuel range. The most prominent example of a HEV is the Toyota Prius.
PHEV uses power outlets to charge one or more batteries in the car. It is a step up from HEV vehicles because when the battery pack is depleted in a PHEV it continues to operate as a standard HEV hybrid. This helps the vehicle achieve an even greater fuel range through electric power. The Toyota Prius Prime (a PHEV model of the cult classic) is a great example.
Greater choice and better design have been among the leading factors that have helped many car owners convert from fossil fuel-powered vehicles to EV.
But there are many general questions potential buyers have - What is the cost to buy? What are they like to drive? How far can they go? How long do they take to charge? Where can I charge my EV?
Electric cars come in a variety of price ranges much like their fossil fuel counterparts. Consumer Reports lists the starting range for EVs around $30,000 for compact vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, and can go as high as six figures for luxury and sport electric vehicles like the Tesla Model X or Model s Plaid.
From the outside, EVs have the look and function similar to a conventional automobile, but it’s how the car runs that really shows the difference.
Mechanical Engineering professor Marc Compere of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University explained exactly how an electric vehicle runs. “While a traditional vehicle with an internal combustion engine and an electric vehicle with battery power both have systems that include driveshafts or half-shafts, differentials, and brakes, the energy source behind the system is the key difference.”
A conventional powertrain includes a gasoline or diesel fuel tank, fuel delivery system, internal combustion engine, exhaust system, clutch or torque converter, and multi-speed transmission, Compere says, while the electric version includes a battery, high power orange cables to deliver electric power, and between one and three electric motors.
How do EVs function?
Electric vehicles drive slightly differently than a traditional gas powered car. Because they are powered by a battery, power is instant instead of gradual. This means that these engines have a high torque to horsepower ratio. EV’s ride smoothly and do not make any engine noise because there is no combustion and no emissions.
“What is different with an electric motor is that it is an energy conversion device that works in both directions,” Compere said. “An engine converts gasoline to mechanical power in only one direction: from chemical to mechanical power. An electric machine can be used as a motor or generator and switch between the two modes in just a few microseconds.”
This leads to regenerative braking, which is different from an ICE vehicle because the accelerator pedal controls the electric acceleration as well as the braking.
“Most EVs have what is called a zero-point accelerator pedal that allows the driver to accelerate and also brake using the electric motor using only the accelerator pedal,” Compere explained. “This means an EV driver can use the electric motor to accelerate and also brake without ever touching the mechanical brakes.”
The vehicle ends up running on its own stopping momentum and there is no need to have a battery in the engine bay since the entire vehicle runs from the same power source.
Distance on EV
The range of an electric vehicle is dependent on the motor that sits inside of it. The more money that is spent means more power with one or even multiple batteries inside. Fuel Economy explains that most all electric vehicles can travel 100 miles on a single charge while higher trim models can run an excess of 200 to 400 miles.
Regenerative braking is an essential part of EV.
“An EV driver can use the electric motor to accelerate and also brake without ever touching the mechanical brakes,” Compere explained. “Braking with the electric machine operates like a generator and returns some of the vehicle’s kinetic energy back to the battery.”
Not only does this give longevity to the engine but it also allows the operator to attain a longer range depending on how the vehicle is driven.
Due to regenerative braking some owners can get more out of one charge.
Porsche Taycan owner Patrick Sobieski says he gets a lot more than the promised range.
“The expected range was listed at 200 miles, but I am seeing 280 miles,” he says.
Time to recharge!
EV recharge time starts to creep into the cons of ownership. Compared to gasoline and diesel engines EV has much longer refuel times with Fuel economy stating that “fully recharging the battery pack can take 3 to 12 hours.
Even a ‘fast charge’ to 80% capacity can take 30 minutes. Most users will plug their EV in at night in order to have a full charge in the mornings.
Despite this drawback, EV charging stations are starting to become more common around the United States.
The U.S. Department of Energy claims that there are more than 46,000 alternative fueling stations within the United States.
Sobieski gives an honest answer on what potential EV buyers can expect to pay in electricity to recharge an EV from their home.
“... $6-8 a charge once a week so approximately $32 a month. A lot better than those gas prices right now," Sobieski says.
Range anxiety can be a big concern when it comes to EV ownership.
“The problem with range is when people want to travel across state lines or drive across the country," says Compere. "Tesla has built the SuperCharger Network for just this need. Some people routinely drive multi-thousand mile trips and plan around the SuperCharger Network.”
Tesla’s SuperCharger Network consists of 30,000+ SuperChargers globally and claims a recharge of up to 200 miles is attainable in just 15 minutes of charging.
How sustainable are EVs?
Sustainability can be defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
For cars this means finding energy sources that aren’t using up the earth’s resources and can be done indefinitely, explains EM specialist Ethan Owens.
“For energy that means things like solar. For plastics and other materials that depend on fossil fuels as a starting point, it’s finding alternatives such as recycling, plant based oils, etc.,” he adds.
So how sustainable are EVs? The vehicle itself is not the issue, but rather the battery that powers the vehicle, and currently the batteries are not sustainable.
“Batteries require lots of nickel and cobalt, which are almost entirely mined and therefore can run out,” Owens said, adding that recycling EV batteries isn’t a thing yet since it’s cheaper to buy the raw materials and make new ones. “There are also battery chemistries that aren’t as efficient, but don't rely on expensive materials.”
Although these vehicles are not at a point where they can be labeled truly sustainable, EV is still making strides in the right direction.
Owens explains how EVs are more efficient since a gallon of gas put into a traditional ICE engine will not get someone as far as a gallon of gas turned into electricity at a power plant will for a Tesla.
And the need for a reduced carbon footprint means it’s worthwhile to keep figuring this out.
“I think you need to measure it at the macro level,” Owens said. “One person buying an EV isn’t a meaningful thing, but a country making the decision to ban gas powered cars would be.”