As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, and people are seeking out more ways to decrease their carbon footprint, it’s perhaps unsurprising that electric vehicles are rising in popularity. And while we all know the positive effects they can have on the environment, how exactly are they powered?

With the various types of hybrid car, such as BEV, PHEV and HEV, out there, a straightforward explanation isn’t clear cut. Here, we’ll delve into the workings of these green machines to explain how they take to the road without costing the earth.

The various types of electric vehicle – looking under the hood

Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV)

BEVs use electricity that’s stored in a battery pack to power an electric motor and turn the wheels. Once the battery has been depleted, they’re recharged using grid electricity, either from a wall socket or a dedicated charging unit. Since they run entirely on electricity, they’re considered “all-electric” vehicles.

Much like other electric and hybrid-electric vehicles, BEVs minimise wasted energy by turning the car off when stopped. This is known as “idle-off”, providing energy for the car’s air conditioning and any accessories while the vehicle is idle at a red light or in traffic.

They also employ “regenerative braking”. Whereas the kinetic energy is wasted when conventional cars slow down, regenerative braking captures some of this energy, turning it into electricity and storing it in the battery to power the motor.

Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle

Plug-in hybrid vehicles combine petrol or diesel engines with an electric motor and a large rechargeable battery. They differ from conventional hybrid vehicles since they can be recharged from an outlet, allowing them to drive extended distances solely on electricity. Once the battery is empty, the conventional engine turns on and the vehicle operates as a conventional, non-plug-in hybrid.

The distance the battery pack powers the vehicle differs; it’s as little as 10 miles for some vehicles to over 40 for others. Some models switch to hybrid mode when they reach motorway cruising speeds, generally above 60 or 70 miles per hour.

Much like BEVs, plug-in hybrids feature idle-off and regenerative braking. And since the electric motor supplements the engine’s power, small engines can be used, increasing the car’s fuel efficiency without compromising on performance.

Hybrid Electric Vehicle

Conventional vehicles, such as the one that’s currently parked in your drive, use petrol or diesel to power an internal combustion engine. As the name might imply, hybrid cars also use an internal combustion engine – and can be fuelled like normal cars – but they also have an electric motor and battery.

By using both a conventional engine and electric motor, the best hybrids achieve significantly better fuel efficiency than non-hybrid vehicles, which is why they create less pollution and save drivers money through fuel savings.

Like the other two types, hybrid cars use idle-off and regenerative braking, but they also have a power assist feature, which reduces demand on a hybrid’s petrol engine, which in turn can be downsized and operated more efficiently.

How do hybrid cars work in context?

Pulling away from a stop

Another benefit of hybrid cars is their greater efficiency during city driving. The electric motor powers the car, drawing on the battery for its power, making light work of stops and starts. Up to 15mph, the vehicle uses only the electric motor for power.

During normal cruising

The hybrid’s normal petrol engine is at its most efficient. The engine also powers the generator while cruising, producing electricity and storing it in the vehicle’s batteries for later use.

During heavy acceleration

When this occurs, both the conventional engine and electric motors work together to increase power to the wheels. At the same time, the petrol engine also powers the generator and the electric motor uses electricity from the battery and generator as needed.

During braking and cruising

As we mentioned earlier, this is where regenerative braking comes in. As the car no longer needs to apply power to the wheels, it allows the spinning wheels to power the vehicle’s generator, which produces electricity and stores it in the battery for later use.

Reaching a complete stop

Both the conventional engine and electric motor turn off and the car switches to battery power to run the things it needs to, such as radio, air con and lights.

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