How Electric Cars Work

By: Marshall Brain

Battery Problems

­ Y­ou can replace lead-acid batteries with NiMH batteries. The range of the car will double and the batteries will last 10 years (thousands of charge/discharge cycles), but the cost of the batteries today is 10 to 15 times greater than lead-acid. In other words, an NiMH battery pack will cost $20,000 to $30,000 (today) instead of $2,000. Prices for advanced batteries fall as they become mainstream, so over the next several years it is likely that NiMH and lithium-ion battery packs will become competitive with lead-acid battery prices. Electric cars will have significantly better range at that point.

When you look at the problems associated with batteries, you gain a different perspective on gasoline. Two gallons of gasoline, which weighs 15 pounds, costs $3.00 and takes 30 seconds to pour into the tank, is equivalent to 1,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries that cost $2,000 and take four hours to recharge.


The problems with battery technology explain why there is so much excitement around fuel cells today. Compared to batteries, fuel cells will be smaller, much lighter and instantly rechargeable. When powered by pure hydrogen, fuel cells have none of the environmental problems associated with gasoline. It is very likely that the car of the future will be an electric car that gets its electricity from a fuel cell. There is still a lot of research and development that will have to occur, however, before inexpensive, reliable fuel cells can power automobiles.

Just about any electric car has one other battery on board. This is the normal 12-volt lead-acid battery that every car has. The 12-volt battery provides power for accessories -- things like headlights, radios, fans, computers, air bags, wipers, power windows and instruments inside the car. Since all of these devices are readily available and standardized at 12 volts, it makes sense from an economic standpoint for an electric car to use them.

Therefore, an electric car has a normal 12-volt lead-acid battery to power all of the accessories. To keep the battery charged, an electric car needs a DC-to-DC converter. This converter takes in the DC power from the main battery array (at, for example, 300 volts DC) and converts it down to 12 volts to recharge the accessory battery. When the car is on, the accessories get their power from the DC-to-DC converter. When the car is off, they get their power from the 12-volt battery as in any gasoline-powered vehicle.

The DC-to-DC converter is normally a separate box under the hood, but sometimes this box is built into the controller.

Of course, any car that uses batteries needs a way to charge them.

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