This post, part of a series we're running all about electric cars, was written by Akweli Parker from HowStuffWorks.com.
One of the first things you learn in Cars 101 is that you need fuel, air and spark to bring a car's engine to life. It's practically a mantra. When you have engine problems of some sort, you can usually trace them to something funky going on with either the delivery of fuel, the amount of oxygen available to help burn the fuel or the magnitude and timing of electrical charges to ignite the air-fuel mixture.
With electric cars, we have to toss all that out the window.
In fact, we can scrap an entire category of car parts -- those that convert the mechanical energy of the engine into electricity or vice versa. So the old standbys of starter, alternator and spark plugs, for instance, are "adios" when it comes to electric cars.
Take the starter. Powered by the car battery, the starter is an electric motor that provides the cranking force to turn over the gasoline engine until it in turn fires sufficiently to sustain the internal combustion process. But with no internal combustion engine (ICE) in an electric car, no starter is necessary. Ironically, it was the invention of the electric starter in 1911 by Charles F. Kettering that buried electrics (for several decades, anyway) and allowed the previously hard-to-start gasoline-powered cars to rise to roadway supremacy!
Another common electric item on gasoline-powered vehicles is the alternator. The alternator generates electricity (but is different in several key respects from a true generator). Mechanical energy from the engine drives a belt which spins the alternator. Power from the alternator recharges the car battery so that it can provide power for lamps, entertainment systems and the myriad electronics that are embedded in every car produced these days. On an electric car, there is no alternator. The battery, or more likely battery pack, gets replenished when the car is plugged into the electrical grid or even with an on-site renewable energy source like solar panels.
And then you have spark plugs. These finger-sized hunks of ceramic and metal provide the tiny electrical arc that ignites atomized fuel as it enters the combustion chamber. While they've gotten better and better over the years, they're prone to occasional adjustment or even replacement. Of course, if there's no liquid fuel to ignite, there's also no need for these, either.
All the traditional car parts mentioned in this post eventually wear out. It's been suggested that electric cars were initially suppressed by the major car makers because of their low count of moving and replaceable parts. Lacking the level of required maintenance found in ICE cars, electrics would put dealer repair shops out of work, the worry went.
But with the recent financial meltdown and plummeting interest in gas guzzlers, automakers (domestic and foreign) have concluded that electric vehicles will play a part in their innovative plans to stay in business.
So while it still may take some time before electric car phrases like "controller" and "pot box" are bandied about freely on testosterone-spiked garage shows, we already see that these cars with no starters, alternators or spark plugs are gaining a foothold.