How do electric cars work?

Get your electric car facts sorted! Understand the difference between hybrid and pure electric cars and how they work.

How does the engine work?

Electric cars function by plugging into a charge point and taking electricity from the grid. They store the electricity in rechargeable batteries that power an electric motor, which turns the wheels. Electric cars accelerate faster than vehicles with traditional fuel engines – so they feel lighter to drive.


How does charging work?

You can charge an electric vehicle by plugging it into a public charging station or into a home charging unit. There's plenty of charging stations around the UK to stay fully charged while you're out and about. But to get the best deal for home charging, it's important to get the right electricity tariff, so you can spend less money charging and save more on your bill.


What’s their range like?

How far you can travel on a full charge depends on the vehicle. Each model has a different range, battery size and efficiency. The perfect electric car for you will be the one you can use for your normal journeys without having to stop and charge up halfway through. Explore leasing options


Let’s dive into the details of electric cars. Discover their inner workings, how regenerative braking works and the difference between slow, fast and rapid charging.

How electric cars work infographic -

Can't see the infographic image? Read it here instead

How electric vehicles work infographic


The inner workings of an EV

[IMAGE: an electric car with the locations of key parts identified]

EVs have 90% less moving parts that an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) car.

Here's a breakdown of the parts that keep an EV moving:

Electric Motor

Provides power to rotate the wheels. It can be DC/AC type however AC motors are more common.


Converts the electric current in the form of Direct Current (DC) into Alternating Current (AC)


EVs have a single-speed transmission which sends power from the motor to the wheels.


Stores the electricity required to run an EV. The higher the kW of the battery, the higher the range.


Plug into an outlet or EV charging point to charge your battery



Capacity and kWh explained

[IMAGE: example of an EV battery]

Kilowatts (kW) is a unit of power (how much energy a device needs to work). A kilowatt-hour(kWh) is a unit of energy (it shows how much energy has been used)

For example: A 100 watt lightbulb uses 0.1 kilowatts each hour

What's the annual energy consumption of an average household vs. the annual energy consumption to charge an EV at home?

  • Home: 3,100 kWh a year
  • Electric car: 2,000 kWh a year

[IMAGE: diagram showing range vs kWh/capacity of a battery, with car examples plotted. We show high kWh = high range]


Start. Stop. Start. Stop.

The kinetic energy caused by braking usually goes to waste. However, regenerative braking converts and stores thermal energy from brake pads and tyre's heat friction and reuses it to power the car.

[IMAGE: diagram showing this visually]



Charger types

You can charge an electric vehicle either by plugging it into a socket to take electricity from the grid or by plugging into a charging unit. There's plenty of charging stations around the UK to stay fully charged while you're out and about.

[IMAGE: an example of a type 2 charger connector]

Three pin plug

A standard three-pin plug that you can connect to any 13 amp socket


A charge point where you can connect either a Type 1 or Type 2 cable


A charge point with a cable attached with either a Type 1 or Type 2 connector


Charging speeds


  • Typically rated up to 3kW. Often used to charge overnight or at the workplace.
  • Charging time: 8-10 hours



  • Typically rated at either 7Kw or 22kW. Tend to be installed in car parks, supermarkets, leisure centres and houses with off-street parking.
  • Charging time: 3-4 hours



  • Typically rated from 43 kW. Only compatible with EVs that have rapid charging capability.
  • Charging time: 30-60 minutes


Charging up in changing seasons

The weather affects how much energy your electric car consumes. You have a larger range in summer and smaller range in winter.


Charging on the go

Don't forget to download the Zap-Map app to find the nearest charge station when you're out and about.

499 new devices added to the Zap-Map database over the last 30 days*

9,698 charging locations over the last year (Sept 2018 - Sept 2019)*

*27/09/2019 ZapMap stats



How far is the range?

An EVs range is dependent on the battery size (kWh). The higher the EV battery kWh = more power = travel further.

Volkswagen e-Golf

  • Range: 125 miles
  • Equivalent to a journey from Bristol to Snowdonia National Park


Hyundai Kona Electric

  • Range: 250 miles
  • Equivalent to a journey from London to the Lake District


Jaguar I-Pace

  • Range: 220 miles
  • Equivalent to a journey from Edinburgh to Birmingham


Car Types

EV, Hybrid, Plug-in Hybrid

Electric cars are powered by electricity from the grid. The electricityis stored in the rechargeable battery that is used to power the electric motor - taking you from A to B.

Plug-in Electric (PEV)

  • Purely powered by electricity
  • No petrol or diesel required
  • No emissions produced


Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV)

  • Powered by electricity and fuel
  • Switch between the battery and fuel engine
  • Can be plugged in to charge


Hybrid-Electric (HEV)

  • Powered by fuel and electricity
  • Cannot be plugged in to charge
  • Charged through regenerative braking


Electric vs Petrol

To manufacture a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range will result in about 15% more emissions than manufacturing a similar petrol vehicle. However the running costs and emissions after manufacture are considerably lower for EVs.

 FuelTaxLoss of ValueInsuranceServicing & TyresTotal

BMW i3

3.7p per mile£0£16,707£1,089£322 + £24367p per mile

BMW 318i

14.2p per mile£445£15,066£824£528 + £8774p per mile

Infographic sources













Car Types

Vauxhall Corsa-e front exterior view on road

Lease a brand new electric car

Buying a brand new car isn't for everyone. Lower your out-of-pocket costs and generate zero emissions by leasing an electric car with an affordable monthly rental. No road tax, low maintenance and no depreciation costs.

Find out more

Types of electric cars

There are a few different types of electric vehicle. Some run purely on electricity, these are called pure electric vehicles. And some can also be run on petrol or diesel, these are called hybrid electric vehicles.

Plug-in electric

This means the car runs purely on electricity and get all their power when they're plugged in to charge. They don't need petrol or diesel to run so don't produce any emissions like traditional cars.

Plug-in hybrid

These mainly run on electricity but also have a traditional fuel engine so you can use petrol or diesel too. If you run out of charge, the car will switch to using fuel. When it's running on fuel, these cars will produce emissions but when they're running on electricity, they won't. Plug-in hybrids can be plugged in to an electricity source to recharge their battery.


These run mainly on fuel like petrol or diesel but also have an electric battery too, which is recharged through regenerative breaking. These let you switch between using your fuel engine and using 'EV' mode at the touch of a button. These cars cannot be plugged in to an electricity source and rely on petrol or diesel for energy.

Electric Vehicle Driving Experience

Young woman driver in electric car in countryside

How does driving an electric car compare to a conventional car? Turn the key or push the button and there's no noise, just a few lights to tell you the car's ready. Pull away and you'll notice things are quieter and smoother. Electric motors work well at any speed, so there are no gears to worry about. Although an EV's brakes work differently (recovering energy rather than just wasting it) they feel the same.

All EVs and hybrids have at least an accelerator and brake pedal, but some have a single-pedal mode where the accelerator controls both acceleration and regenerative braking. With that switched off, driving is very similar to a normal car. With it switched on, you'd only use the brake pedal for hard stops.

Other electric vehicles

EVs are making a huge impact on our roads – and we’re not just talking about cars. There are amazing innovations in electric vehicles happening all the time.

Concept image of the Tesla Semi truck


There is already work happening to help freight and fleet operators, vehicle manufacturers, infrastructure providers and procurers to increase the availability and uptake of low emission commercial vehicles. Watch this space.

LEVC electric taxi


Did you know in the efforts to make London zero carbon by 2050, there are taxi-only electric charge points? Read more about how our capital is developing a green taxi solution.

Electric bus on the road at night


Who knew that the era of electric buses was just around the corner? As well as being a cheaper a cost effective way to get around, electric buses will also help tackle urban air pollution.

Want to know more about electric cars and how they work?

FAQs about how electric cars work

Where can you charge an electric car?

Planning how and where you'll charge your electric vehicle is one of the most important things to consider before you buy. You need to know where you’ll charge your EV. If you have a garage or dedicated off-street parking to install a charging plug, you should be able to use that for most of your charging as most EVs have a range of around 100-300 miles before they need charging up again.

If you can't install a charging unit at home, because you live in a flat or there isn't anywhere to install a charging point, see all the UK's charging points on a map. If there are no charging points nearby for you to fully charge, a plug-in hybrid EV might be best for you. You'll be able to use traditional petrol or diesel, and charge when you can access a public charging station.

How far can you travel on one full charge?

You'll want to choose an electric vehicle that has the right range for the kinds of journeys you'll be using it for. For example, if you use your vehicle every day to travel under 100 miles, you should be fine with most models. But if you need to frequently travel over 100 miles, you might want to consider investing more in a model that has a larger range.

If you need a vehicle that you can use for regular long-distance trips, a model with a bigger battery will work better for you.

Discover what vehicles have the longest range

How much does an electric car cost?

Just like traditional cars, electric vehicles vary a lot in price. They're generally more expensive to buy than traditional cars because the technology is new. But as more manufacturers start developing EVs, the cost will come down. You need to consider how much you can afford to pay up front and also how much you are willing to pay for charging on an ongoing basis. If you're looking for something cheaper with a lower range, there are plenty of options available.

For more advice, check out this guide to buying an electric car.

Is there any compromise on boot space in an EV?

Good news! There is no compromise on boot space – you can enjoy as much as space in an EV as you would in any other car.

Do I still have to pay the congestion charge in an electric car?

No, you don’t – cars that produce zero emissions (such as plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles) are exempt from the congestion charge.

Learn about other benefits of driving electric cars

What are the pros of owning an electric car?

There are many pros when it comes to owning an EV.

  • Zero-emission: when you drive an EV you produce no emissions.
  • No noise: at the moment, EVs are much quieter on the roads than petrol cars.
  • Maintenance savings: EVs have fewer moving parts and cost less for upkeep.
  • Tax benefits: most electric cars are tax-free – that’s a saving of £140 a year.

Learn more about the benefits of driving an electric vehicle

What kind of tax benefits can I get when I drive an EV?

There are different types of incentives offered for EV owners, such as government grants or schemes, Vehicle Excise Duty discounts and also exemption from Fuel Duty.

What is regenerative braking?

The kinetic energy caused by braking usually goes to waste. However, regenerative braking converts and stores thermal energy from the brake pads and tyre’s heat friction and reuses it to power the car.

Learn more about how an electric car works

What are the different parts of an EV?

Electric motor

Provides power to rotate the wheels. It can be DC/AC type however, AC motors are more common.


Converts the electric current in the form of Direct Current (DC) into Alternating Current (AC).


EVs have a single-speed transmission which sends power from the motor to the wheels.


Stores the electricity required to run an EV. The higher kWh of the battery, the higher the range.


Plug into an outlet or EV charging point to charge your battery.

Learn more about how an electric car works

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This is the fifth and final episode of Electric Adventures!

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