How Electric Cars Work

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 

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.