A Guide to Electric Cars

Ellie Dyer-Brown, 1 month ago

5 min read

  • Electric vehicles
  • Car ownership
Charging an electric car

WhoCanFIxMyCar explains all the key information about electric vehicles.

The sale of new internal combustion engine and hybrid vehicles in the UK will be banned from 2035 onwards in a bid to make motoring greener. Whether we like it or not, change is coming. Many drivers still have questions about electric cars and may wonder whether now is the right time to make the switch. This guide covers everything you need to know.

Contents

How do electric cars work?

When was the first electric car made?

Are electric cars better for the environment?

Types of electric and plug-in vehicles

Are all electric cars automatic?

The benefits of electric vehicles

The downsides to electric vehicles

Charging an EV

Maintaining an EV

Running an EV

Are electric cars worth it?


How do electric cars work?

Electric vehicles (EVs) use electricity for power instead of petrol or diesel. They store the electricity in rechargeable batteries to power an electric motor that turns the wheels. Rather than filling up an EV with liquid fuel like a combustion engine, you recharge it by plugging it into the grid.

Below is a cross-section of a Nissan Leaf fully-electric car.

Cross section of a Nissan Leaf fully electric car

When was the first electric car made?

Electric vehicles have a much longer history than you might expect. The first production EV was built by Thomas Parker - an English inventor responsible for electrifying the London Underground - in 1884. Shortly after, in 1888, German engineer Andreas Flocken constructed the first electric car in America.


Are electric cars better for the environment?

Electric vehicles are better for the environment than petrol or diesel cars because they produce zero tailpipe emissions. However, they don’t provide the perfect solution. We’ll discuss the environmental drawbacks of electric-powered cars later in this guide.


Types of electric and plug-in vehicles

1. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs)

A BEV is powered by rechargeable batteries. You can plug it in at home to charge using a dedicated home charge point or domestic socket.

Charging an EV at home

Pros

  • No tailpipe emissions

  • Lower running costs than a combustion engine

  • Tax benefits

  • Quiet during use

Cons

  • Expensive to buy

  • Long charging times compared to filling up with fuel

  • Limited choice

2. Plug-in hybrid (PHEV)

Plug-in hybrid vehicles offer the best of both worlds. They feature a conventional engine powered by petrol or diesel and have batteries to power an electric motor. A fully charged PHEV usually offers enough electric range for your daily commute, and the combustion engine is available if you run out.

Pros

  • Complete short journeys in electric mode

  • Lower CO2 emissions than a combustion-only engine

  • Safety net of combustion engine for longer journeys

Cons

  • Weight of batteries reduces overall efficiency

  • More expensive than conventional combustion engine cars

  • Smaller fuel tank requires more frequent fill ups

3. Hybrid (HEV)

HEVs, sometimes called ‘self-charging hybrids’, are powered by electricity and a combustion engine. They can’t be plugged into the mains because the engine is still the primary power source. The battery is charged through regenerative braking and the internal combustion engine.

Hybrid car badge

Pros

  • Extremely efficient in towns and cities

  • Cheaper than PHEVs and BEVs

  • No need to plug in

  • Regenerative braking recharges the batteries

Cons

  • Very limited electric range

  • Can be inefficient on longer journeys

  • Sales of new hybrid vehicles will end when the government ban comes into force

4. Mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs)

Many MHEV owners will be unaware that they’re driving one - they aren’t hybrids in the traditional sense and are pretty different to the other electric vehicles discussed so far. They can’t ever be run with zero emissions.

MHEVs feature a small battery pack and integrated starter-generator to boost acceleration and increase efficiency slightly. They have marginally better fuel economy and slightly reduced CO2 emissions compared to pure internal combustion engine cars.

Pros

  • Roughly the same price as a car without the mild hybrid technology

  • Feels the same as a conventional non-electric vehicle

  • Offers a small increase in fuel efficiency

Cons

  • Can’t drive in electric mode

  • Not a proper hybrid

  • Reliant on petrol or diesel engine

5. Range-extended electric vehicle (RE-EV)

A range-extended electric vehicle uses a small petrol or diesel engine to produce electricity, which is used to recharge the car’s batteries. This process allows you to travel further once the batteries have run out.

Unlike a hybrid vehicle, the petrol or diesel engine never drives the wheels in an RE-EV. That’s the job of the electric motor.

Pros

  • Better than a hybrid on longer journeys

  • No range anxiety

Cons

  • Limited choice

  • Heavy engine reduces efficiency

  • Shorter range than a BEV


Are all electric cars automatic?

All fully electric cars are automatic because they are powered by an electric motor, meaning the speed and power of the vehicle remain constant and don’t require a change of gears. There is no clutch or gear stick in an EV.

Inside a Tesla car

Since an EV’s motor spins too fast to drive the wheels directly, the rotational force is sent to a reduction gear before it goes to the wheels. Rather than using a variety of gears like petrol or diesel cars, the reduction gear is a single-speed unit.


The benefits of electric vehicles

  • Lower running costs

  • More environmentally-friendly than petrol or diesel cars

  • Reduced noise pollution

  • No congestion charge

  • Strong resale value

  • Refuel at home

  • More miles for your money


The downsides to electric vehicles

The benefits of EVs are numerous, but they also have drawbacks, such as:

  • They are expensive to buy

  • Many still have limited range

  • The lifespan of batteries is limited

  • It takes a long time to charge them compared to filling up a petrol or diesel car

  • Many have relatively low top speeds

Environmental considerations

EV batteries contain precious metals like lithium that are extremely energy and water-intensive to mine. Mining lithium can also emit harmful air pollutants depending on the processes used. Extracting it from the earth can cause biodiversity loss, soil degradation, contamination, water shortages and ecosystem damage. It is a non-renewable mineral, leading some to call it the new oil. A lithium mine is pictured below.

A lithium mine

Another point to consider is that electric vehicles are only as green as their power sources - currently, millions of metric tonnes of wood pellets are imported from Canada and America to be burnt at UK power stations like Drax. It goes without saying that this is not an environmentally friendly practice, even though the pellets are misleadingly labelled as ‘renewable’.

The UK’s infrastructure for recycling lithium-ion batteries is still limited. They cannot be discarded at the end of their life because the materials they are made from would be harmful to the environment, and the process of recycling them is complex and (at present) inefficient. Fortunately, this problem can be solved by investing in new recycling technology and infrastructure.

All of this is to say that electric vehicles are more environmentally friendly than internal combustion engines, but they are not perfect. We may move to a better, alternative fuel source as technology advances.


Charging an electric vehicle

How to charge an electric car

All you have to do to charge an EV is plug it into a power source. There are three ways to do this:

  • At home - you can charge your car using a domestic three-pin socket or a dedicated home charging point, which is much quicker.

  • At work - the government has a Workplace Charging Scheme (WCS) that helps companies with the cost of installing charging points.

  • At a public charging point - you can often find public charging points at supermarkets, service stations, cinemas and at the side of the road.

How much does it cost to charge an electric car?

Running an electric car is cheaper than a petrol or diesel model. According to E.ON Energy, the average cost of electricity is 34p/kWh, and the average price of petrol or diesel is more than £1.63 per litre, which is significantly higher.

However, prices vary depending on when and how you charge. By taking advantage of the convenience of off-peak home charging, you can potentially save a significant amount. Fast chargers at service stations are likely to cost considerably more than charging at home.

How much does it cost to install an electric car charger at home?

The cost of installing a charger varies based on the following factors:

  • Your home’s construction

  • The charger being installed

  • Where your internal electricity distribution board is

  • Your house’s electrical system

  • Additional options

Charging an EV at home

You can expect to pay around £700-1,000 for the installation of a standard 7kW home fast charger and roughly the same again for the charger itself. Some companies bundle these two costs together.

You could opt for a 22kW version if you want a faster charger. However, this requires a three-phase power supply, which UK homes generally don’t have. You could upgrade your power supply, but this would come at a significant extra cost.

How long does it take to charge an electric car?

The time it takes for an EV to charge depends on the charging point's speed and the battery's size. It could be anywhere between 30 minutes and 12 hours. A typical electric vehicle with a 60kWh battery takes less than eight hours to fully charge from empty using a 7kW charging point.

How long do electric car batteries last?

Most manufacturers offer a five to eight-year warranty on their EV batteries. That said, the current prediction is that most batteries will last at least ten years before they need to be replaced.


Maintaining an electric vehicle

Do electric cars need an MOT?

EVs still need an MOT every year after they turn three years old, but the test doesn’t include a check of the car’s emissions or noise.

Do electric cars need servicing?

Electric vehicles don’t have a combustion engine or gearbox, so there are fewer moving parts to go wrong. However, they still need regular servicing to keep the suspension, brakes, fluids, motors, batteries and tyres in good condition.


Running an electric vehicle

Are electric cars cheaper to insure?

Electric cars are not cheaper to insure than their internal combustion engine counterparts. In fact, they are often more expensive. The good news is that prices are coming down, and EVs are still cheaper to run overall.

Read our guide about car insurance and how to get it cheaper.

Do you pay road tax on electric cars?

Fully electric cars are exempt from road tax. However, hybrid vehicles still have to pay.

Do electric cars pay congestion charges?

As part of the Government’s Cleaner Vehicle Discount scheme, which runs until 2025, electric vehicles are exempt from congestion charges.

Are electric cars cheaper to run?

Electric vehicles are usually cheaper to run than petrol or diesel cars. They don’t have to pay road tax and are exempt from congestion charges, although their insurance is sometimes higher. Compared to buying fuel, charging an EV works out cheaper per mile. Eventually, this may offset the high initial cost of buying one and installing a charging point.


Are electric cars worth it?

Only you can decide whether switching to an electric vehicle now is worth it. If you can afford the expensive upfront cost, there are many benefits, including lower running costs. Plus, you’ll be making a positive impact on the environment. 

Green electric car charging

On the other hand, some drivers can’t afford to go green just yet and may decide to hold out until cheaper models with a better range are available. The decision is yours - hopefully, this guide has given you the information you need to make it.


Looking for affordable car repairs or maintenance? Whatever you need, WhoCanFixMyCar can help you find the right garage at the right price.

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Written by Ellie

Ellie Author Pic

Ellie is WhoCanFixMyCar’s Content Writer. She has a BA in English literature from Durham University, a master’s degree in creative writing, and three years of experience writing in the automotive industry. She currently drives a Suzuki Swift.

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