How electric cars work – CNET

This story is part of Plugged in, CNET’s hub for all things electric vehicles and the future of electric mobility. From vehicle reviews to helpful tips and the latest industry news, we’ve got you covered.

There’s a lot of hype about electric vehicles, but has anyone ever explained how they work to you? Here are the basics for people who just want to know what they’re buying and don’t know.

In terms of locomotion, there are five main components that differentiate an electric car from a petrol car:

  • Charger
  • battery
  • power control unit
  • Engines)
  • Transmission)


Contrary to popular belief, the thing on your garage wall or pole at the mall isn’t the charger, it’s the EV service equipment that powers the charger built into your EV. This charger converts the alternating current supplied by the ESVE into direct current that the battery can store. This can be done either via a slow Level I charge if the car is plugged into a 120 volt EVSE, or a faster Level II charge if tapping into 240 volts.

Best EV Charger Hero

No, these are not EV chargers, not strictly speaking anyway. These are power connections that supply power to the charger built into the electric car.

ChargePoint/Dcbel/United Chargers/Wallbox

Exception: If you are using a fast charger such as a Tesla Supercharger, it is a DC connection. It has a much higher amperage than your home can supply, which is why it charges your car so much faster.


The battery is the heart of every electric vehicle. It essentially determines that of a car heavily scrutinized rangeusually higher costs and much greater weight. It’s both magic and a curse.

The battery is usually laid out as a large flat panel under the car’s belly, containing smaller modules containing many even smaller cells. Some cars dispense with the belly pan battery and shape it more like a piece of luggage to be stowed in car body cavities. But the shape and position of the battery matters little to the average buyer. What matters is the range that the whole car delivers.

Tesla Model 3 battery

There’s plenty of room under a Tesla Model 3 for a huge, flat battery. This “skateboard” layout is favored across the auto industry, but is not the only way to align an EV battery.


Batteries store direct current, whether it’s in a flashlight, a phone, or a car. Therefore the charger has to convert AC to DC to recharge the battery and that is also one of the main tasks of the next component, albeit in reverse.

power control unit

The power control unit is an assembly that goes by different names and isn’t typically advertised by car manufacturers, but it is important. Its most important job is to convert the DC power stored in the battery back into AC power, which most EV motors use. It does this with a component called an inverter, a version of which you may already be using to power your laptop or other home power device from the 12-volt socket in your car’s dashboard.


What looks like a small four-cylinder engine under the hood is actually the power control module for the lithium-ion battery pack and electric motor. Below that sits an 80-kilowatt motor that drives the front wheels.

Josh Miller/CNET

The power control unit also connects the powertrain to the accelerator pedal, start button and driving mode controls. And, crucially, it monitors regeneration so that an EV will feed power back into its own battery when coasting or braking.

Much of Tesla’s success is its ability to optimize the various power flows and conversions that take place in its electric vehicles, proving the importance of the most under-vaunted component in an electric vehicle.


The engine, of course, turns the wheels, but unlike an internal combustion engine car, in an electric vehicle you can have one or more engines. More motors can make an electric vehicle faster, give it sophisticated all-wheel drive, or both. But don’t lift the hood and expect an impressive-looking engine like that of a conventional car. They are usually compact and not much to look at, often buried out of sight.


Not nearly as impressive to look at as a petrol engine, each of these Tesla electric motors produces 248 hp and can propel a Tesla Roadster up to 200 km/h and accelerate from standstill to 100 km/h in 3.9 seconds.

CBS Interactive

It is perfectly valid to compare horsepower and torque between a petrol car and an electric car. Notice how high the torque specification is on any EV you’re considering, which is part of the nature of electric motors and makes EVs a kick to go beyond what their horsepower suggests. And electric cars can deliver most of their torque from low revs, while petrol-powered cars need to be revved up to achieve maximum acceleration. Engines are only different from motors, which you will notice when you first drive an electric vehicle.


Not much to say here as electric motors don’t actually need a gearbox. The way they operate makes them efficient and powerful over a much wider RPM range than internal combustion engines, so they don’t need six, seven or even ten gears as crutches to adapt to different vehicle speeds or loads.

Because an EV doesn’t have a typical gearbox, it has a drive mode selector instead of a PRNDL. Federal regulations require that every car sold in the United States conform to certain conventions, including parking at the end of the cruiser’s travel and reversing alongside it. But EV propulsion controls often take some unconventional forms and can add an unfamiliar position that puts the car in a higher regeneration mode while driving, as previously described.

2021 Toyota Prius shifter

This rather odd shifter shows the difference in an EV powertrain compared to the multi-speed gearboxes of ICE cars.


It’s easy

This list may seem like a lot, but electric vehicles have simpler powertrains that require 70% to 90% fewer parts than a gasoline-powered car. This collection of fewer parts still typically costs more than a gas-powered car, but as scale lowers the cost of EVs, its inherent simplicity should only accelerate that curve. How electric cars work – CNET

Chris Barrese

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