How Do Electric Cars Work?

Electric cars might seem complex, but they’re actually quite straightforward under the hood. In fact, their setup is even simpler than that of a vehicle powered by internal combustion. Read on for a basic explanation of how an electric car works:


A rechargeable lithium-ion battery made up of hundreds or even thousands of cells is what powers an electric vehicle. The battery can be charged when the vehicle is plugged into an outlet or charging station, as well as by the motor when braking and coasting.

Gas Tank/Generator

Not all electric vehicles contain a gas tank or generator, but the Chevy Volt is an example of a car that does. This small fuel reserve can be used to recharge the battery on the fly, which significantly extends the vehicle’s range. This is a useful feature for drivers who take long trips or spend a lot of time on the freeway where electric vehicles are less efficient.


Electric cars contain an electric motor that’s powered by the battery. The motor turns the wheels. It also recharges the battery during braking. (This is called regenerative braking.)


The controller moderates how much electricity enters the motor based on what the accelerator is doing.

Power Electronics

A converter and an inverter change power from DC to AC and vice versa to power various parts of the vehicle.


Electric cars can be charged very slowly using a regular outlet (this is called trickle charging), a fair bit faster using a special charging system that can be installed in the home, or rapidly using a public charging station.

A full recharge can take as little as an hour at a public charging station, between three and eight hours on a home charging system, and as long as twelve hours using trickle charging. However, no matter how long it takes, one thing that remains constant is the fact that it’s very inexpensive to do so.


Most electric cars can drive between approximately 35 and 100 miles on a charge, depending on the conditions and the driver’s style. Tesla cars, which use a different kind of battery, boast ranges up to 300 miles on a charge. (Their price point reflects this, of course.)