Electric car technology is developing at a breathless pace. But did you ever wonder what’s going on under the hood? Let’s take a look at how it works.

Electric car technology is developing at a breathless pace. Issues like power and range, which used to hold electric cars back, are quickly becoming non-issues. And technological developments are making electric vehicles faster, cheaper, and more attractive to consumers every day. But did you ever wonder what’s going on under the hood? Let’s take a look at the technology that makes electric and hybrid vehicles go. And then we’ll see how you can put electric car technology to work for you.

Electric Car Technology: How Does It Work?

It’s really pretty simple.

Fuel

All cars need fuel to power them. That fuel can be gas, diesel, electric, hydrogen, or even a combination. The fuel can have a liquid form, or another form.

The Engine or Motor

Gas cars have an engine. EVs (electric vehicles) have a motor (though some people might call it an EV engine). Hybrid cars have both. A gas engine and an electric motor have the same purpose, but they work differently.

Here is how each type works:

In a gas engine, oxygen in the air burns the hydrocarbon molecules in gasoline to release heat. This is called internal combustion. The heat then pushes the pistons that turn the car’s wheels.

Electric cars convert electrical energy into motion, without any kind of combustion.

electric car technology hybrid engine diagram

A Car with a Hybrid Engine. Image CC SA 2.0 by Peter Kuiper, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hybrid cars have a gasoline engine plus an EV engine (motor). In some hybrids, both the motor and the engine power the wheels. These are called parallel hybrids. In others, the electric motor drives the wheels, while the gas engine runs the motor like a generator, and recharges the battery. These are called series hybrids.

Fuel Cell cars are another kind of EV technology. However, they use tanks of hydrogen to generate the electricity that runs the motor, instead of batteries.

Electric Car Conversion: Motor Replaces Engine

So, is converting a gas or diesel powered car to an electric car as simple as switching out the engine and installing a bank of batteries? Yes and no. The principle is simple, but, like all major projects, the execution can be complicated.

This video from EV West gives you a quick overview of a VW Beetle conversion using one of their conversion kits. EV West’s conversion kits typically start just under $7,000, and go up from there, depending on a range of available options.

A typical conversion, with or without a kit will cost between $5,000 and $10,000. Here’s how one builder broke down the costs:

  • Batteries – $1,000 to $2,000
  • Motor – $1,000 to $2,000
  • Controller – $1,000 to $2,000
  • Adapter plate – $500 to $1,000
  • Other (motors, wiring, switches, etc.) – $500 to $1,000

Notice that this doesn’t include the cost of the donor car, that is, the car which will become the base for your build. Where can you get these parts? Fortunately, there are a number of companies in the United States and around the world who deal in electric car conversion parts. You might try:

It’s important to plan your conversion before you buy. Different kits contain different parts. Some contain everything you need to do a build from the ground up. Others may contain just a subset of parts. There are plenty of text and video tutorials available for builders. So to avoid disappointment, do your research and know your needs.

Here are a few first person accounts of electric vehicle conversions. You can judge for yourself if this kind of project is for you.

High-Performance Electric Motors

When it comes to pitting fossil fuel powered cars against electrics, performance has always been an issue. Performance, in automotive terms, means speed. Specifically, the ability to accelerate quickly to a high speed, and maintain it. A high performance car also needs to have the handling and braking systems necessary to handle that speed safely. One of the reasons fossil fuel vehicles pushed electrics out of the market in the early twentieth century was performance. Specifically, electric motors were unable to provide the horsepower consumers wanted, in order to reach the speeds they wanted.

electric car technology high performance

Image CC BY 2.0, by terren in Virginia, via Flickr.

But electric car technology has changed a lot since then. It’s changed a whole lot in just the past twenty years. Now, electric cars can provide excellent performance for general consumer needs. In addition, racing cars with high-performance electric motors has become a popular sport the whole world over. You can watch “Formula E” racing and learn about the latest developments in high-performance electric motors at the FiaFormulaE website. As for high performance consumer vehicles, you can check out Autobytel’s list of the Top 10 High Performance Electric Vehicles, right here.

Planning your Electric Car: Buy, Build, or Convert?

Between the 1920s and the 1990s, electric cars were for inventors, early adopters, and tinkerers. But all of that has changed. Electric car technology has made owning an electric vehicle an achievable dream. But what kind of car do you want? Do you want to buy, convert, or build your EV from the ground up? This depends on you.

Buy

Image CC by SA 2.0, by By GabboT, via Flickr.

Do you want something that you can drive off the lot and use right now? Do you want to know for sure that it will work, and you won’t have to get under the hood and mess with it? Or worse — start paying for expensive repairs even before you’ve paid off the vehicle itself? Then you want to buy one of the many fine electric cars on the market today. You have your choice of manufacturers. Chevrolet, Ford, Toyota, BMW, and even Kia and Hyundai all have affordable EVs for sale. You can buy a compact, a sedan, a minivan or SUV, or a luxury car. Just do your research, determine your needs, then prepare to go shopping.

Convert

But what if you like your present car, but just don’t like the pollution it creates? Or perhaps you want something that looks familiar on the outside but has a secret power under the hood? Then a conversion may be in your future. But don’t go into it blind. Read, talk to other builders, and do your research. Organizations like the Electric Auto Association can help you to connect to other builders and to learn about electric vehicle technology. You can also find information on online forums like the DIY Electric Car Forum. When you’re ready, you can start looking for a donor car. And once your build is planned, you can find the parts you need from one of the conversion kit dealers mentioned above.

Build From a Kit

Image CC by SA 3.0, by Stiggymills, via Wikimedia Commons.

You’ve been fooling around with cars all your life. Or perhaps you have a lot of time and a lot of patience for learning. And you’ve always been one to blaze your own trails. Then a ground-up build from an electric vehicle kit may be what you’re looking for. MEV Ltd. is one of several car kit designers that carries an electric vehicle kit (pictured above). And wow, it is gorgeous.

With a car kit, you can buy what you need to build your vehicle exactly the way you want it, from the motor to the paint job.  Or you can buy some parts pre-made, and make things up as you go along. A lot of builds are somewhere in between. The advantage of a kit is that you can have everything exactly the way you want it, right down to the lug nuts. All kits should come with a list of parts, a plan, and diagrams. If you know your way around the garage, you’re already ahead of the game. On the other hand, if you’ve never done it before, it’s easy to get in over your head with a build. So consider carefully. Read reviews, and talk to people. Never before has there been so much information available to builders. Make use of it.

In Conclusion

Electric car technology has come a long way in the last twenty years. We’ve seen electric vehicles go from science project to major market force. In addition, they are taking over in the field of mass transportation, and making giant leaps into the world of medium duty work vehicles. Understanding electric car technology can make you an educated consumer. In addition, if you want to build your own electric car one day, understanding how they work will put you ahead of the game.

Featured Image CC by SA 4.0, by Mariordo (Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz), via Wikimedia Commons.

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