Interior of an electric or hybrid vehicle, highlighting the powertrain.
Sergii Chernov/

Do even a little research on electric vehicles (EVs) and you’ll see the term “regenerative braking.” You probably know that it allows EVs and hybrids to extend their range a bit with spare kinetic energy, but how does it really work?

What Is Regenerative Braking?

Hitting the brakes on a car creates kinetic energy. Regenerative braking lets EVs and hybrid vehicles store some of that kinetic energy in the battery to use when you accelerate again. That’s accomplished through the EV motor’s dual-rotation design.

An EV’s motor spins in two directions. One lets the motor power the car’s wheels during acceleration. The other lets the wheels power the motor when the car decelerates, turning the motor into an electric generator. Part of the kinetic energy goes to the battery, and the rest goes to the brake system to generate the friction needed to stop. You might also hear regenerative braking referred to as “B mode.”

But what exactly is kinetic energy in the first place? Any body in motion has kinetic energy. The more mass an object has, the more kinetic energy it has while moving. A car is a pretty massive thing, and all that energy it was using has to go somewhere to bring it to a stop.

When you hit the brakes on your gas car, the brake pads press against the wheel rotors and create friction to slow it down. As the car slows, its kinetic energy becomes heat at the point where the brake pads and rotors press against each other. In conventional gas vehicles, most of that energy is lost. EVs and hybrids are designed to harness some of it to power their batteries.

So when someone takes their foot off the brake and the car is coasting to a stop, or when they hit the brakes to manually stop the car, the motor spins in the opposite direction using the resistance from the wheels. Some of the energy that would’ve become heat against the brake pads is channeled into the motor instead, spinning it and generating more electric power.

Different manufacturers will program their vehicles to use this feature at different levels of intensity, so it’ll feel different than braking in a gas vehicle. It tends to feel like the car is stopping itself as soon as you lift your foot off the gas pedal. Though the intensity of that feeling will vary depending on how much the regenerative braking system is engaged, it takes some getting used to whatever type of EV you’re driving.

Some EVs let you tailor the brake system until it’s comfortable to use. The Nissan Leaf, for example, has a switch that enables regenerative braking aggressive enough that you don’t really need to use the friction brakes on surface streets; you just take your foot off the pedal and the motor does the rest. All EVs also have conventional disc brakes that work in combination with the regenerative system for quicker or more forceful braking.

Some EVs only allow one setting for the regenerative brakes. Tesla, for example, used to have two options for their regenerative braking system: low and standard. From 2020 onward, however, they only come with the “standard” option.

EVs and hybrids come with a charging gauge in the dash display that lets you see how much power is being generated by the regenerative braking system each time you stop. It’s usually displayed as part of the speedometer, opposite the miles-per-hour readout.

How Efficient is Regenerative Braking?

All EVs and hybrids use some kind of regenerative braking. How efficient the system actually is will depend on a few factors.

One is how new the vehicle is. Much like battery technology, EVs are constantly updating their regenerative braking systems. Some claim to recapture as much as 70% of the kinetic energy typically lost from braking.

How quickly and how often you’re using the brakes is important. In stop-and-go traffic on surface streets, you’re braking often, and a lot of that energy goes back to the battery. Long stretches of highway driving, on the other hand, offer less opportunity to recapture the car’s kinetic energy — the motor is just pushing the car forward. You can, however, recapture a lot of energy by slowing down from high speeds. Coasting down from, say, 70mph will net you a decent amount of charge if you can coast uninterrupted for a while, as will a quick descent downhill using the regenerative brakes.

Some people have even recharged their cars by towing them with regenerative braking on like this guy did with his Tesla on the YouTube channel Warped Perception. We wouldn’t recommend doing this regularly though, as it requires the tow vehicle to burn a ton of gasoline pulling your EV along at highway speeds.

To capture as much kinetic energy as possible, you also need to stay at a certain speed while braking. This may feel slower than braking in a gas vehicle, and take some getting used to. Keeping the speedometer needle in the upper half of the charging gauge as you stop will save up the most energy. If you don’t have a lot of opportunities to brake smoothly, the system won’t be as efficient.

So can regenerative braking completely recharge your EV? No, but it can help increase the efficiency of its power usage and provide you with a little extra range, especially on city streets.

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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