How Electric Cars Work

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 
Rivian R1T
Rivian is a new electric car company based in California. Along with building electric trucks, like the Rivian R1T seen here, the company invests in solar projects, including a solar farm in Tennessee that produces enough renewable energy to power all of the state's Rivian Waypoints chargers. Elliot Ross/Rivian

Electric cars are cool. Really. They've changed drastically since HowStuffWorks first reported on the GM Sunraycer prototype that helped launch the GM EV1, the first mass-produced electric car.

It's been nearly 30 years since General Motors' experiment with the EV1, an electric vehicle (EV) that was leased to a select group of customers between 1996 and 1999. Today, you can walk into nearly any car dealership and have your choice of fully electric vehicles, including affordable compact cars and performance-oriented trucks and SUVs.


Public charging stations now dot grocery store parking lots and highway rest stops; your smartphone can tell you where the closest stations are, how much it'll cost to charge your car, and when your car's battery is fully charged. Try explaining that to your late-'90s self.

That said, EVs aren't without problems. Despite the innovative features, EVs still aren't catching on as fast as automakers, environmentalists and some legislators would hope.

But before we get into explaining how electric cars work — and how the auto industry and the United States are changing to adopt the technology — we have a word of advice.

If you haven't yet driven an electric car, go drive one. It's a completely different experience than what you know. EVs are quiet, quick and they're loaded with technology.

Because EVs are designed differently than gas cars, with the battery weight low to the ground and more evenly distributed, they tend to handle better. And thanks to their instant torque and simplified powertrains, electric vehicles can smoke gas vehicles in a zero to 60 race just about every time. Fun to drive? You bet.

Electric Vehicle Engineering

electric car blueprint
Electric cars don't look any different than gas-powered cars. The key difference is how they're powered. cherezoff/Shutterstock

From the outside, electric cars look like gas cars. They're built of steel and glass in various shapes and sizes, and they sit on platforms with four wheels. But there are some key differences in how EVs are engineered.

Notably, the wheels on EVs are driven by one or more electric motors powered by a battery pack that stores energy. A transmission drives the wheels on EVs like it does on gas cars, but EVs have simple electric single-speed units, without physical gears. Some EVs use one motor on each axle to efficiently enable all-wheel drive; some performance-oriented EVs have a third motor for extra horsepower and torque.


You charge an EV battery via the charge port. The location of the charge port on EVs tends to vary by manufacturer, but the setup at a public charging station will look similar to a gas pump hose running to the car's tank. If you're charging at a home charging station in a garage or exterior wall, it'll look like your EV is plugged into a large outlet.

EVs also have a thermal cooling system to keep the battery and its components running at an optimal temperature, and various computers and converters to make sure the right type and amount of power are sent to the right places.

Unlike hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars, there is no engine or gasoline component to a fully electric car. However, hybrids and plug-in hybrids are electrified, pairing batteries with the gas engine in a way that enables these cars to run on whatever fuel source is most efficient at the moment.

Plug-in hybrids have the added benefit of being able to store power in the battery for a short, fully-electric range, typically about 20 to 40 miles (32 to 64 kilometers) to enable short commutes without using the gas engine. Plug-in hybrids are a great way to start transitioning to an electric car for those who aren't ready to fully commit, but only make sense for those who can plug in at home or at work.

How to Charge an Electric Car

Tesla charging station
Charging stations, like this Tesla Supercharger network in a parking garage in Delaware, make it easy to charge your car while you're at work or running errands. Nadya Kubik/Shutterstock

If you're pulling into a gas station to fuel up, the biggest variable you must consider is whether there's a line at the pump. Charging an electric car isn't that easy. At a public charging station, the time commitment — at best — is 30 to 60 minutes, and that depends on many factors.

First, battery size and charging speed vary by car — often even by trim level. Charging speed also depends on the type of charger, the age of your car, the weather (yes), the temperature of your battery when you start to charge, and even if you stay in the car while it's charging.


Note, too, that a DC fast charger will deliberately slow down to a trickle once your car's battery reaches 80 percent. Why? To both to preserve battery life and to discourage EV owners from occupying public chargers beyond the point they really need to. Public charging stations are designed to get you on your way as quickly as possible.

The best-case scenario might be to charge an electric car overnight at home. With a level 1 (120-volt) or level 2 (240-volt) home charger, you can recharge an EV battery overnight in about 9 to 13 hours.

But a 2022 Stanford University study disputed whether overnight charging is the right option for the electrical grid, especially if there's a charger available during the workday. Researchers said the influx of electric cars will help reduce emissions, but by 2035 the electricity demand from car charging could increase by as much as 25 percent.

How Clean Are Electric Cars?

 electric versus gasoline cars
Electric cars don't emit greenhouse gases, which makes them more environmentally friendly than gas-powered cars, but by no means are they perfect. Peter Varga/Shutterstock

So how eco-friendly are electric cars when compared to gas cars? Electric cars don't pollute the air with greenhouse gas emissions, but they aren't flawless.

First let's talk charging those batteries. No matter when and where you charge an electric car, the source of that power is still electricity. And we know that how electricity is generated varies in different regions. So for example, charging an EV in Washington State, which produces a lot of hydroelectric power, will be "cleaner" than charging an EV in West Virginia, where the electric grid depends on coal, even though both cars will have zero tailpipe emissions.


However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says charging electric cars still puts a lower amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the average gasoline car.

Then there are the lithium-ion batteries, which are the key components of electric cars. There are several reasons why the batteries are problematic.

Lithium is a rare resource that's found only in certain remote parts of the world. Mining for it is energy intensive, very expensive and bad for the environment. In addition to lithium, EV batteries also require cobalt and nickel.

The manufacturing of those lithium batteries — and the electric cars themselves — creates significant emissions, too. The 2022 Argonne National Laboratory's GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Technologies) Model says building an electric car produces about 80 percent more emissions than building a gas-powered car because of the intensity it takes to create the batteries.

But experts estimate the batteries will last about 15 to 20 years. And the total greenhouse gas emissions for an electric car, including manufacturing and a lifetime of charging and driving, is still lower than the typical gasoline car.

While it's possible to find more ways to use a lithium battery that's no longer a reliable source for an electric car, most end up in landfills, because recycling them is an expensive, labor-intensive and inconsistent process.

The Future of Electric Cars

F-150 Lightning
The Ford F-150 Lightning Platinum is the electrified version of the best-selling F-150 pickup truck. Ford

The last few years have also shown that automakers are not afraid to push the envelope when it comes to electric vehicles. Here's just a small sampling of the 2023 and 2024 electric cars on the market.

  • Audi e-tron Sportback: five-passenger electric SUV; 225-mile (362-kilometer) range
  • BMW i7: BMW's flagship luxury electric sedan; 318-mile (511-kilometer) range
  • Chevrolet Blazer EV: sporty SUV; 320-mile (514-kilometer) range
  • Chevrolet Silverado EV: electric-only pickup; 400-mile (643-kilometer) range
  • Ford F-150 Lightning: electric-only pickup; 321-mile (516-kilometer) range
  • Ford Mustang Mach-E: all-electric Mustang; 314-mile (505-kilometer) range
  • Hyundai Ioniq 5: sporty SUV; 303-mile (487-kilometer) range
  • Hyundai Kona Electric: all-electric compact car; 258-mile (415-kilometer) range
  • Lucid Air: luxury electric sedan; 425-mile (683-kilometer) range
  • Mercedes EQS SUV: Mercedes' flagship SUV; 305-mile (490-kilometer) range
  • Porsche Taycan Sport Turismo: off-road-oriented wagon; 235-mile (378-kilometer) range
  • Rivian R1S: electric SUV; 321-mile (516-kilometer) range
  • Rivian R1T: electric-only pickup; 328-mile (527-kilometer) range
  • Volvo XC40 Recharge: sporty, all-wheel-drive SUV; 223-mile (358-kilometer) range

Of course, these electric vehicles vary in functionality, purpose and efficiency. Don't expect to achieve the F-150 Lightning's 321-mile range if you're towing a boat or a camper. But these electric cars certainly show how far the technology has come.


While the earliest EVs on the road, like the GM EV1, were all awkward little wedges on wheels, automakers are investing heavily in producing EVs that appeal to a wide variety of consumers.

The EV industry also checked a lot of boxes in 2022. The Biden administration passed several different pieces of legislation that allocated funding for more federal rebates for people who purchase or lease electric cars, more funding to develop and build out EV infrastructure and the electric grid, and more investments in domestic battery and component manufacturing. All of these measures are designed to support EV adoption and accelerate the phasing out of new gasoline vehicles.

The nationwide charging infrastructure, as we discussed, still needs to be expanded for more Americans to switch to electric cars, but that is happening. Tesla's Supercharger network, which is widely recognized as the most robust in the country, was previously available only to Tesla owners, but is gradually opening up to other brands.

Automaker Mercedes-Benz announced it is developing a high-speed charging network with 400 charging hubs in North America. Other charging networks, like Electrify America and EVgo, also continue to expand. And the Biden administration is committing funds to focus network development along interstate highways and in areas that are currently underserved.

So, while the U.S. government isn't coming to take your gas-powered cars, it is likely that sometime in the future, your new car will be electric.