Everything You Need To Know About Getting An Electric Car

There’s going to come a time when e-cars are the norm and part of our everyday living. But, how exactly do they work and should you take the plunge? We asked the experts what you need to know…

What are the different kinds of an electric car?

There are four main types of electric vehicles, says James Fairclough, CEO of AA Cars, the AA's used car buying platform. “There are four main types of electric vehicles – battery electric vehicles (BEV); plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV); hybrid electric vehicles (HEV); and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, also known as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV).”

How do they work? 

Each type of electric car works in different ways and has different functions. Here, James explains the difference between them:

Battery Electric Vehicles: 100% electric, meaning they are solely powered by electricity and do not have a petrol/diesel engine, fuel tank or exhaust pipe. Drivers can charge the battery by plugging it into the mains or via regenerative braking, which is a process where the electric motor helps to slow the vehicle and uses some of the energy normally converted to heat by the brakes. Battery electric vehicles store electricity on board with high-capacity battery packs. BEVs do not emit any of the harmful exhaust emissions caused by traditional petrol/diesel-powered vehicles.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle: Powered by both fuel and electricity, however, their electric battery is much smaller than a 100% electric vehicle. The combustion engine and electric motor(s) can be used separately or in combination. Generally speaking, PHEVs can function solely on electricity for anywhere between around 10 and 40 miles. They can recharge their battery by both regenerative braking and by plugging-in to an external electrical power source.

Hybrid Electric Vehicles: are powered by both fuel and electricity, but there is no facility for external charging, and electric-only range is much lower than in a PHEV. The battery, which is smaller than in a PHEV is charged by a combination of regenerative braking and the combustion engine. Drive is controlled by an internal computer, which selects the best combination of combustion engine and electric motor for the best economy for the driving conditions.  

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles: These also run on electric motors, but the electricity comes from a hydrogen fuel cell instead of a battery. A hydrogen fuel combines hydrogen from the car’s fuel tank with oxygen from the air to generate electricity while the car is running. The fuel cell will continue to generate power as long as it has a supply of hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are refuelled with hydrogen at a filling station in a similar way to vehicles with a petrol or diesel engine.

Are they an affordable choice? 

Electric vehicles are still expensive at the moment, but experts suggest that it’ll only be a few years before they start to match the price of regular combustion engine cars. “Right now, there is an initial premium on buying an electric car but with EVs providing up to a 90% reduction in fuel and service, the overall savings are vast,” advises Fiona Howarth, CEO of Octopus Electric Vehicles. “We recommend leasing, because you notice the savings on a monthly basis.”

How often do you have to charge them and for how long?

For BEVs and PHEVs, it depends on how big the batteries are, how far you drive and how fast the charger is that you use to charge. But the easiest way to do it is to charge your car every night, so you can leave the house every day with a full charge. “It is like having a fuel pump at your house,” says Fiona. If you’re on a longer trip you may need stop to use one of the public ‘rapid charge points’ for between 20-40mins, then you’ll have enough energy to do another couple of hours of driving. “Even faster chargers are currently being created from Tesla and Ionity, which will add about 100miles of charge to your EV in under eight minutes,” Fiona adds. 

How long does the battery last?

“The record number of miles a car can do on one charge is over 250 and this comes from Tesla’s latest model,” Fiona explains. “The battery is likely to outlast the car, however for peace of mind most electric cars come with an eight-year warranty. After being in the car, these batteries are not used again, so they get recycled for renewable tech and homes. Mercedes, Nissan and Tesla already do this.” But beware, adds James - battery life will be shortened if frequently discharged to empty or charged to 100%. “It’s best to keep the battery charged at between 50% and 80%. The majority of car manufacturers offer an 8-year/100,00 miles warranty for their batteries.”

Are they really so much better for the environment than conventional cars?

“Electric vehicles produce less greenhouse gases and air pollutants compared to conventional diesel or petrol vehicles. How much better electric vehicles are for the environment depends on the type of electric vehicle,” says James. “For example, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) produce zero exhaust emissions, meaning they are considerably better for the environment. Meanwhile, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and hybrid eclectic vehicles combine an electric motor with a petrol or diesel engine, and so usually produce some emissions from the exhaust pipe over the course of a journey, however, on average at a far lower level than traditional petrol or diesel cars. These vehicles can also drive in ‘electric only’ mode for shorter distances, which means they produce zero emissions during this time. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are also better for the environment than conventional vehicles as the only direct by-product of their energy generation is water, which means they significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced. To summarise, electric vehicles of any kind are ‘greener’ and more environmentally-friendly than their average petrol or diesel equivalent in use, but the overall advantage depends on how the electricity used to charge them is generated.”

What's the difference in cost between a petrol car and electric overall?

“Elon Musk can be quoted as saying that buying a Tesla Model 3 is like buying a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry in terms of lifetime cost,” says Fiona. “To put that into perspective, a UK Toyota Camry is £29,000 which is £12,000 pounds less than the Tesla Model 3 upfront, but by the time you factor in maintenance and fuel as well as the government grant, they work out equal over four years.”

Do they need much maintenance?

Luckily very little maintenance is needed because there are fewer moving parts and there is no requirement to keep the engine oil topped up. Plus, regenerative braking means that you use the brakes much less too which saves the brake pads from wearing. The only things you need to keep an eye on are your tyres and your washer fluid.

How fast can electric go? 

“Top speeds can reach over 120mph for current cars and over 200mph for some in production at the moment” Fiona explains. “EVs are not limited to being slower than their petrol counter parts. It’s worth remembering that speed is incredibly inefficient though, going just 10% faster takes up 30% more power.”

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