02 Aug Under the hood

Learn about the origins of EVs, their key components and the basics of how they work.

Vermont blacksmith Thomas Davenport is credited with making the first electric motor back in the 1830s. His idea didn’t take off. He couldn’t get funding, so he moved to New York City and launched a mechanics journal instead, printed on a press fueled by? You guessed it. An electric motor.

Today’s EV motors are a far cry from Davenport’s initial design, but they both accomplish the same goal: using electricity to turn a wheel. In the later 1800s, advances in technology helped to make electric vehicles more popular. At the turn of the century, most of the cars on the road in the United States were actually electric.

However, by the 1920s, gas-powered vehicles surpassed them in sales in the U.S. When the oil crisis hit in the 1960s and 1970s, oil prices soared, gas was in high demand, and interest in lowering the U.S.’s dependence on foreign oil grew. That’s when interest in electric vehicles started to pick up again.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Just three key parts

Let’s take a look at how modern electric vehicles are put together. Understanding more about how your car works will help you take better care of it.

Your EV has three main components: its electric motor, an array of rechargeable batteries and a controller, which takes power from the EV’s batteries and delivers it to the motor. The insides of an electric vehicle will have a lot of wires, while your standard gas-powered vehicle—with its exhaust pipe, fuel lines and coolant hose—will look a lot like plumbing.

The main difference between your EV and a gas-powered car is that EVs get power from rechargeable batteries installed in the car. A gas-powered vehicle uses energy that’s produced by the ignition of fuel. EV battery packs—which are the same type of batteries that are used in gas vehicles—are typically located under the electric vehicle or in the EV’s trunk rather than under the hood, like you’ll find with a gas-run vehicle.

What’s happening when you start the car?

Here’s what’s going on inside your EV when you start it up and push down on the accelerator. Your movement triggers a device that tells the controller how much power it should deliver from the charged battery in your car to your motor. The controller can deliver no power when you’re stopped, maximum power when you floor it, and any level of power in between. The motor then changes that electrical energy into mechanical energy, which is what moves your vehicle forward.

As an EV moves, the forward momentum that’s generated by the electric motor can be used to charge your vehicle’s batteries when you hit the brakes, a phenomenon that’s known as “regenerative braking.” Through this process, electric vehicle drivers can recover close to 15% of the energy used for acceleration.

Electric cars can use two types of motors, AC or DC. The main difference between the two is at how many volts each motor runs. AC stands for “alternating current.” It’s the standard type of electricity that you’ll find in your home. In an AC circuit, the current flows in both directions. DC stands for “direct current.” In a DC motor, the current only flows in one direction. A DC motor can run on 96 to 192 volts, while an AC motor typically runs at 240 volts.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

All about batteries

In EVs, the auxiliary battery provides the electricity to start your vehicle. The traction battery, which stores the electricity that will power your electric vehicle’s wheels, then engages.

For electric vehicle batteries, there are three commonly used types: lead-acid batteries, nickel metal hydride batteries, and lithium-ion batteries. Lead-acid batteries are the oldest form of rechargeable battery and are inexpensive to produce. Nickel metal hydride batteries have a high energy density, meaning lots of energy can be stored into a small battery. They’re also free of toxic metals and are easy to recycle.

Lithium-ion batteries—the types of batteries that are typically used in laptops—also have a high energy density, are lightweight and they’re less likely than other batteries to lose their charge when they’re not in use.

Almost all electric vehicles also have another, smaller battery on board, a 12-volt lead-acid battery that provides power to accessories such as headlights, your radio, your car’s computers, air bags, wipers and power windows.

Having a basic idea of all your EV’s components and how they work will help you understand how to best maintain your EV. It will also come in handy if you end up needing repairs. You’ll be better positioned to explain the issue to a mechanic and will have a better grasp on the work being done.

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