The days of the internal combustion engine (ICE) and even of hybrid electric vehicles (HEV) are numbered as the automotive sector moves towards a fully electric, zero-carbon future.

Significant progress has already been made, and it's not uncommon to see electric cars on the road in any part of the UK on any given day — they're no longer the preserve of city centres or commuter routes.

As an ever-increasing number of businesses and individual motorists look to ownership or leasing electric cars as a way to save on fuel costs, cut carbon footprints, and avoid downtime due to vehicle maintenance, let's take a look at how an electric car works, and what's going on under the bonnet.

How do electric cars work?

Electric cars are powered by a bank of rechargeable battery cells, which may be stored in the engine compartment, under the floor of the passenger cabin, or a combination of both.

The vehicle's total capacity is given in kilowatt hours (kWh) and, combined with the physical characteristics of the vehicle such as its overall weight and efficiency, this all adds up to determine how many miles the car can cover on a full battery charge.

When you start the car, electric current from the battery is used to power the motors that turn the wheels. If you’re the driver of the vehicle, the operation is no different to using an ICE vehicle.

Under the hood

If you've never seen under the bonnet of an electric car, you might be surprised by its simplicity compared with all the moving parts of an ICE vehicle. With no need to burn fuel to create the drive power, most electric vehicles only really have two core components.

Batteries

Electric car batteries are made up of lots of individual cells, and together these create the high-capacity battery that gives the vehicle the energy it needs to accelerate, as well as to run any onboard systems like lights, wipers, air conditioning, and entertainment features.

When you run any part of the car that needs power, whether that's the engine or any of those onboard systems, you draw energy from the battery, which can be recharged at home, at service stations and roadside charging points, or at a workplace EV charging point.

Electric motor

The motor that turns the wheels is also a fairly traditional component. When electric current runs through the motor, this induces a magnetic field. In turn, the magnetic field turns a rotor, accelerating the vehicle.

It's not uncommon for the top electric car models to have more than one motor. Typically they may have a motor for the front wheels and a second motor for the back axle — a kind of four-wheel drive for EVs — but some very high-performance electric vehicles have three or even four motors.

Types of electric car

Not all electric vehicles run on exactly the same technology. Some examples of different types of electric car, include:

Extended range and hybrid electric vehicles

HEVs were among the first electric cars on the market. They combined an electric motor with a conventional petrol or diesel engine. Over short distances and at lower speeds, the electric motor alone would drive the car. For longer drives and more power, the ICE engine would engage and could be used to recharge the battery.

This had the effect of allowing the vehicle to cover more miles before the battery needed to recharge from an external power source (other than the car's ICE engine). As EV batteries improved in capacity, the ICE engine got smaller until, eventually, fully electric cars became standard even for long journeys.

Battery electric vehicle

A Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)  is the standard type of fully electric car as we now know it. The vehicle is powered entirely by a battery of electric cells, which are mainly recharged when the vehicle is parked (or via kinetic energy retrieval under braking).

Most of the top electric car models on the market today are BEVs, although their battery capacity and other features may vary, so it's always worth comparing electric car models to see which is best suited to your driving style and other needs.

Fuel cell electric vehicle

FCEVs are quite rare and are powered by a hydrogen fuel cell — in essence, they use hydrogen as a fuel to generate electrical energy, rather than burning petrol or diesel, or running on a pre-charged bank of battery cells.

Because they use a physical fuel source, FCEVs can be refuelled at hydrogen filling stations. As yet, there is not a lot of infrastructure in the UK for this. Furthermore, FCEV cars are still quite expensive to buy, but this technology may become more commonplace in the future as a legitimate alternative to rechargeable BEVs.

How to charge an electric car

Charging an electric car is as simple as plugging it in. EVs come with a charging cable — there are two types , with the most recent electric car models using Type 2. Your vehicle should come with the appropriate type of cable.

Charging an electric car from a wall socket

To charge from a traditional three-pin mains electricity socket, you plug the charging cable into your vehicle, and plug the other end into the wall socket. This is easy, familiar, and doesn't need any special equipment, so as long as there's an available socket, you can charge at traditional houses  or at commercial properties, where applicable.

Charging an electric car from a home charging point

It's faster to charge an electric car from a home charging point. These have a much higher power output, typically either 3.6 kW or 7.2 kW, so they can put energy back into your battery much faster. Charge points can be Type 1, Type 2, or universal (referred to as tethered or untethered charging points), so you'll need the right type for your vehicle, or a universal/untethered charge post.

Charging an electric car in public

More and more charging points are appearing in public places . By the roadside, these are referred to as lamppost charge points, and there are also 'fast' charge points in public car parks, and 'rapid' charge points at some service stations. Rapid charge points have the highest power ratings — reaching into several hundred kW — so they're even faster still, but can also cost more to use.

Final thoughts

Driving an EV is not enormously different from driving an automatic car in the past, and most of the technological differences  are hidden away under the bonnet and floor of the vehicle — you just need to know how to charge your electric car and where your nearest fast charging points are.

With EV technology evolving all the time, there may be new types of charging cables, even faster charging points, and new fuels like FCEVs used more widely in the future.

Leasing electric cars is a great way to keep up to date with the top electric car models as they come on to the market, while benefiting from the best efficiency, maximum range and better economy of the newest models.