In this article, we break down the different types of EVs, and introduce you to charging and range. Consider this your pre reading on the main differences between internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles (read: gas-powered), and EVs.
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What powers your car?
The main differences on the spectrum of fully gas powered to battery-run cars include how they are powered.
The choice of fuel (or battery) affects how much you need to plan your drive. For example, for long distances an EV may require more planning than a gas powered car to ensure access to charging stations. On the other hand, for shorter distances or a steady commute, EVs provide major cost reduction on gas prices and no additional recharge time.
The list below provides an overview of how different types of cars are powered – an important consideration when seeking a new car.
Gas-powered cars use an internal combustion engine (ICE), typically fueled by gasoline or diesel. These are the cars that you grew up with. They have a lot of moving parts that require fairy constant maintenance and emit noxious fumes that degrade surface air quality.
Hybrid cars, also known as hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), supplement the ICE with an on-board electric motor. The electrical system is activated when a driver hits the brakes and converts kinetic energy into electrical energy, which is then stored in a small battery pack. Hybrids utilize their battery for short distances, and still primarily rely on gas. The electric motor is there to add fuel efficiency, not to propel the car.
Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEV) are powered both by gas engines and electric motors. They have larger batteries than hybrids, and can be plugged into electric outlets. They typically start by using battery power to run, but supplement with gas at high speeds or up steep hills. Once the battery energy is exhausted, typically after a moderate distance range, the gas engine starts and the car uses its gas fuel until it is plugged in again to recharge.
All Electric Vehicle (or battery electric; BEV)
A fully electric vehicle, also known as a battery electric vehicle (BEV or EV), does not have a gas engine, but only an electric motor, power electronics, and a battery pack. They can travel long distances, though they do not have a fuel backup. The range for modern EVs is usually around 250 - 300 miles per charge, but the exact distance your car can go depends on factors such as temperature, terrain, and drive speed - not to mention what EV you have.
Driving an EV: faster acceleration and no noise
Another important difference between ICE and EVs is the driving experience. Spoiler alert: it's no surprise that driving an EV is the thing that gets most drivers to buy one.
First off, electric cars often feel faster. This is because electric motors produce maximum torque at 0 rpm, which makes acceleration feel more instantaneous at low speeds compared with gas-powered cars. Because of this, EVs tend to feel quicker than gasoline cars, though they are not always faster. For example, EVs may be able to go from 0 to 60 mph far more quickly, but also have lower top speeds than gas cars.
You may also be surprised at how an EV feels to drive the first time you get into the driver’s seat. EVs are far quieter than gas-powered cars; you don’t experience that same revving noise, or glugging sound. They are also quite a bit heavier, and a lower center of gravity makes them hug the road.
Many EVs also offer one-pedal driving – a unique benefit that provides the ability to stop and go using only the accelerator. One-pedal driving is possible due to the regenerative braking systems in EVs. When you take your foot off the accelerator, the electric motor reverses direction and acts as a generator, using the kinetic energy of the car moving to recharge your battery. You are capturing lost energy when you slow down! While regenerative braking is a suave way to leverage high school physics to mitigate energy loss, it is also something that can take some getting used to. Luckily, many cars let you toggle how strong the regenerative braking is, and drivers get used to it quickly.
Range: an unnecessary source of anxiety?
Range is heavily scrutinized because on average, an EV can drive half the distance of gas cars before requiring a charge. And, of course, gas pumps are far more ubiquitous than chargers (though that is slowly changing). The same things that affect fuel efficiency in an ICE will also affect EV range, including: driving uphill, driving with lots of weight in the car, towing, bad tire pressure, gunning it, and weather.
Another important difference between electric and gas cars is where they are more efficient. On a highway, a gas-powered car has the advantage and will generally get better efficiency than on local streets or in the city. But for city driving and traffic, EVs get amazing efficiency and often out-perform their range estimates.
PS: EV efficiency is measured in something called MPGe - miles per gallon equivalent. It’s a way to compare the fuel efficiency of all cars.
The efficiency of EVs and ICEs are different in hot and cold weather. In a gas-powered car, heat is nearly “free” in terms of energy use, while using the AC costs a lot. That’s because a combustion engine creates a lot of heat. It is literally powered with lots of tiny little explosions! However in an EV, it’s the reverse – AC is less of a hit to range than heat is. Not only do cold temperatures slow down the chemical reactions in battery cells, but electric cars have very little waste heat to use. This means that in order to heat the battery and the car cabin, they have to generate their own heat, sapping range and increasing charging times. On the plus: most EVs come with features such as heated seats and steering wheels, since they are more efficient ways to keep the driver warm. Almost all of them also offer a way to warm up your car remotely (“preconditioning”) to help save your winter range.
Maintenance: no more oil changes
Another consideration when choosing an EV or ICE car is the frequency and cost of maintenance. EVs tend to have lower maintenance costs, as electric motors and batteries require far less routine care than gas engines (e.g., no need for oil changes). The cost to maintain an EV has been estimated to be around a third less than the cost of an equivalent gas car over a period of five years. Part of this is due to the construct of each model – ICE cars have hundreds of moving parts, whereas there are only a handful of parts found in EVs. Also, an internal combustion engine is literally powered by tiny explosions. This means there is a lot of heat, expansion, and physical wear and tear to operate it. The electric motor does not have this same mechanical operation.
Charging vs. Gas Station
While state and federal governments work to expand public chargers, currently home-charging devices cover about 70-80% of all charging use cases. At-home chargers are relatively easy to have installed, and allow for convenient charging. But, the thing that often worries new EV drivers is charging while on the road.
Though today gas pumps are far more accessible than public charging stations, that imbalance is changing as the federal government works to grow a national EV charging network. The number of charge points in the US is poised to grow from about 4 million today to an estimated 35 million in 2030.
EV drivers can use several apps to choose from to help find public chargers and even filter by connector type, accessibility, and charging speed. For example, PlugShare helps you find EV charging stations locally or on road trips, features more than 600K stations across a variety of networks, and provides real-time availability. With other apps like EVgo, you can reserve a charger ahead of time, or with Electrify America you can focus your search on Level 3 DC fast chargers. It’s helpful to download these apps and plan your route before you drive, so you can ensure access to charging wherever you go, and protect yourself from any major navigational mishaps.
Written by Carolyn Kossow (she/her), a gender, queer, and racial justice activist who is dedicated to a life and career advocating for social justice. Through Kossow Consulting, Carolyn has enjoyed the flexibility and diversity of being able to support the work of several mission-driven organizations: nonprofits, start-ups, small business, and global companies alike.