An electric car plugged in and charging.

Electric vehicles (EVs) are spiking in popularity as the world moves toward more renewable energy and transportation solutions to fight climate change. The technology behind EVs has improved, and they’ve become a much larger part of our culture. Companies like Tesla have even made the EV a kind of status symbol. But have you ever wondered how they actually work?

Here we’ll briefly go over what makes EVs different from gas-powered vehicles and how they work.

So, How Do Electric Vehicles Work?

When people refer to electric vehicles, they’re usually talking about entirely electric cars powered by a battery. These are sometimes called battery electric vehicles (BEVs). But there are other types of vehicles that could be categorized as EVs, including:

  • Hybrid vehicles
  • Plug-in hybrid vehicles
  • Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs)

The main types of EVs on the road today are hybrids and battery-powered vehicles.

How the Battery in an EV Works

All EVs not powered by a fuel cell need some kind of battery to store the energy used to power the vehicle down the road. Most commonly, those batteries are made of lithium-ion — basically industrial-strength versions of the battery in your cell phone.

Engineers working on an electric car.

EV batteries are typically constructed from stacks of cells organized into units and laid out in a large bank along the bottom of the vehicle called a traction battery. The battery assembly is charged with electricity from the grid via a charging station or by plugging the vehicle into a home power socket. Larger vehicles like trucks and SUVs powered by a battery will have larger battery banks.

Once fully charged, the vehicle has a set range before needing to be charged again. Electric cars are built with other features to extend battery life, like turning the engine off when the car isn’t in motion and using the kinetic energy from when the car brakes to charge the battery.

Fuel cell vehicles operate a bit differently. Instead of a battery, they use a tank of stored hydrogen gas, mixing that hydrogen with the oxygen in the air to create an electricity-forming chemical reaction. Once the gas is depleted, the tank needs to be refilled, which can take less time than recharging an EV’s battery.

Advances in EV battery technology are constantly being made, meaning the range of EVs will probably continue to increase as we see new iterations of their design. GM announced a partnership with LG at CES 2021 that will produce smaller EV batteries that are more energy-dense.

Electric Motor vs. Gas Engine: What’s the Difference?

Internal combustion engines powered by gas use compressed, ignited fuel to move pistons connected to a crankshaft, which turns the vehicle’s wheels. An all-electric vehicle uses the same principle of rotation to push a vehicle forward, just powered differently.

The chassis of an electric car.
Sergii Chernov/

Instead of pistons, an EV uses electromagnets to get the crankshaft moving. The electric motor in an EV has a system of magnets, some of which are stationary and some of which rotate. The magnets are made to rotate by continuously switching the polarity of the magnets that need to spin.

Remember those science experiments you did as a kid, where you got two magnets, arranged them pole to pole, and tried to push them together? At a very basic level, the resistance you get when trying to push two magnets facing north-to-north or south-to-south together is what rotates an EV’s motor and spins the vehicle’s wheels.

To create that resistance, the rotating magnets need to always have an opposite charge to the stationary ones. That’s achieved by a device called an inverter. The inverter draws power from an EV’s battery to switch the polarity of the rotating magnets somewhere around 60 times a second. The constant switching creates sustained magnetic resistance and powers the motor. You can see a great visual breakdown of this concept in this video from the YouTube channel TechVision.

This design is more efficient than an internal combustion engine because the motor is built to spin from the start, whereas a gas-powered engine has to use a crankshaft to convert its piston’s up-and-down motion into a rotary motion to turn the wheels. Adjusting the frequency of the inverter’s polarity switching also gives the driver finer control over an EV’s speed and torque than you can get from a gasoline engine.

Are EV’s Really More Sustainable Than Gas Vehicles?

All-electric vehicles don’t burn fossil fuels, so they don’t emit any harmful exhaust from their tailpipes. In hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the only byproduct of operating one is the water you get from mixing hydrogen and oxygen. In that way, EVs are more sustainable and environmentally friendly than gas vehicles. However, the batteries they require to operate have to be built and sourced carefully in order to be sustainable in the long term.

The minerals needed to build EV batteries will need to be mined at a larger scale if electric vehicles are going to compete with gas-powered ones. There’s also the question of what to do with those batteries once they’ve reached the end of their useful lifespan. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report on EV batteries in February 2021 outlining what would need to be done to make that happen. Key measures include battery recycling programs, strong workplace health and labor standards, and renewable energy use in manufacturing.

Battery manufacturers are also turning to more readily available materials in their battery construction. The GM batteries mentioned earlier, for example, are incorporating aluminum into their design to reduce the amount of cobalt used per battery.

Another point often made about the sustainability of EVs is that the plants that produce the electricity to power those vehicles also produce greenhouse gas emissions. Both gas and hydrogen fuel cells vehicles can use electricity produced through natural gas, for example. While the emissions are still less than those produced by gas vehicles, greater investment in renewable power sources like wind and solar could further limit the impact of generating electricity to power more electric vehicles in the future.

Profile Photo for John Bogna John Bogna
John is a freelance writer and photographer based in Houston, Texas. His ten-year background spans topics from tech to culture and includes work for the Seattle Times, the Houston Press, Medium's OneZero, WebMD, and MailChimp. Before moving to The Bayou City, John earned a B.A. in Journalism from CSU Long Beach.
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