Introduction to electric cars

The electric car industry is growing fast, thanks to improved choice, lower prices, grants and ever-improving battery technology.

What is an electric car?

Put simply, an electric car is a one powered by an electric motor rather than a traditional petrol/diesel engine. This electric motor is powered by rechargeable batteries that can be charged by common household electricity.

History of electric cars

1900s

Electric cars are nothing new. Interest in motor vehicles increased greatly around the 1900s and at that time there were about twice as many electric cars on the road than petrol/diesel cars. It wasn’t until the 1920s that interest in electric cars dwindled. The reason was that electric cars were limited by their low top speeds and low range (just a few miles). In addition, in 1912 the electric starter motor was developed for petrol cars, eliminating the traditional drawback of petrol cars: having to use a hand crank to get the car moving!

It was Henry Ford who put the nail in the electric car coffin when his company began to mass-produce the Model T. This slashed the price of petrol cars to about half that of an electric car and so in the early 1900s almost all electric car manufacturers began to cease making them.

The limited maximum speed of electric cars (up to 30mph) limited their practicality. For most of the 20th century, British milk floats made up most of the world’s number of electric vehicles.

Interest in electric cars returned following the energy crises of the 1970s and 80s; with the availability and price of oil being shown to be increasingly volatile, people could see the potential benefits of battery-powered cars. A few big car companies brought out models and some were sold to environmentally-minded members of the public. However, in general electric vehicles were still losing out to the style and lower price of their petrol-fuelled cousins.

2000s

In the 2000s, the development of hybrid vehicles, plus another fuel crisis, saw the technology adopted by larger numbers than ever before. Tesla’s Roadster, which went on sale in 2008, was a game changer for the industry. The attractive design and extended range of the Roadster appealed to a larger market than ever before and encouraged competitors such as Nissan and Chevrolet to launch their own models.

As of September 2016, there are more than one million pure electric cars and vans owned globally.

How do electric cars work?

There are two types of EV technology: hybrid and pure electric.

Fully electric car

The main parts in an electric car are a rechargeable battery, controller and electric motor. First, the battery is powered. Then the controller converts the current from DC-AC so that it can be used by the motor. The motor converts electrical energy to mechanical energy.

Hybrid car

The same technology exists in hybrid cars, alongside a small gasoline engine running a generator. This powers the car at cruising speed, and batteries provide extra power when accelerating. Batteries can recharge themselves when the car is decelerating or standing still. Hybrid technology means that your petrol goes much further, saving you money and reducing environmental impact.

What are the benefits of electric cars?

  • They produce no tailpipe emissions, so are better for the planet.
  • They are exempt from road tax and from the London Congestion Charge.
  • They often have a smoother drive than petrol cars.
  • They are cheaper to run.
  • Do not need much maintenance, as they have fewer moving parts.

What are the downsides of electric cars?

  • They can have a comparatively limited range. This depends on the model, the weather and the style of driving.
  • Depending on the car and the charger, they can take a long time to charge.
  • Batteries may need replacing after 5-10 years in order to retain efficiency. After a few thousand few charges, the battery will lose its ability to hold charge as effectively.
  • Not all parts of the country will have a charging point nearby.

How safe are electric cars? 

Electric cars are measured by the same safety standards as standard cars, and many have the highest 5-star ratings. There have been (very rare) reports of lithium ion batteries catching fire and exploding, but extra safety measures are installed to ensure this cannot happen. These include fuses and circuit breakers, plus coolant run through battery packs to keep them at a low temperature.

Fans of petrol cars argue that chemicals in an electric car battery will catch fire in the event of a crash. However, a tank full of petrol is about as flammable as you can get. This is why some people believe electric cars are in fact the safer option.

Are electric cars better for the environment?

Electric cars are a more environmentally-friendly option than traditional cars because they produce no tailpipe emissions. However, they are not considered carbon neutral unless the electricity they run on is generated from a renewable source. You can read more about it here.

Can I get a grant for an electric car?

You can get a government grant of up to £4,500 for an electric car and £500 towards a home charging point. Check what you could get here.

Where can I charge my electric car?

You can charge your car at a public charging station or at home via a domestic socket or a specially installed charging point. Where you charge your car affects the cost and how long it takes.