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How Electric Cars Work


by Marshall Brain

Electric cars are something that show up in the news all the time. There are several reasons for the
continuing interest in these vehicles:
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Electric cars create less pollution than gasoline-powered cars, so they are an environmentally
friendly alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles (especially in cities).
Any news story about hybrid cars usually talks about electric cars as well.
Vehicles powered by fuel cells are electric cars, and fuel cells are getting a lot of attention right
now in the news.

The 50-kilowatt controller of a typical electric car

In this article, you will learn about electric vehicles both from the manufactured and the home-brewed
points of view. You will also learn about an innovative program for middle and high school students
that lets teams of students build and race electric vehicles!

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5/24/2005

A Sample Car

An electric car is a car powered by an electric motor rather than a gasoline engine.
From the outside, you would probably have no idea that a car is electric. In most cases, electric cars
are created by converting a gasoline-powered car, and in that case it is impossible to tell. When you
drive an electric car, often the only thing that clues you in to its true nature is the fact that it is nearly
silent.
Under the hood, there are a lot of differences between gasoline and electric cars:
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The gasoline engine is replaced by an electric motor.


The electric motor gets its power from a controller.
The controller gets its power from an array of rechargeable batteries.

A gasoline engine, with its fuel lines, exhaust pipes, coolant hoses and intake manifold, tends to look
like a plumbing project. An electric car is definitely a wiring project.
In order to get a feeling for how electric cars work in general, let's start by looking at a typical electric
car to see how it comes together. The electric car that we will use for this discussion is shown here:

A typical electric car, this one has some particularly snazzy


decals (see The EV Challenge to learn about this educational
program for middle and high school students). This vehicle is
owned by Jon Mauney.

This electric vehicle began its life as a normal, gasoline-powered 1994 Geo Prism. Here are the
modifications that turned it into an electric car:
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The gasoline engine, along with the muffler, catalytic converter, tailpipe and gas tank, were all
removed.
The clutch assembly was removed. The existing manual transmission was left in place, and it
was pinned in second gear.
A new AC electric motor was bolted to the transmission with an adapter plate.
An electric controller was added to control the AC motor.

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The 50-kW controller takes in 300 volts DC and produces


240 volts AC, three-phase. The box that says "U.S. Electricar"
is the controller.
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A battery tray was installed in the floor of the car.


Fifty 12-volt lead-acid batteries were placed in the battery tray (two sets of 25 to create 300
volts DC).
Electric motors were added to power things that used to get their power from the engine: the
water pump, power steering pump, air conditioner.
A vacuum pump was added for the power brakes (which used engine vacuum when the car
had an engine).

The vacuum pump is left of center.


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The shifter for the manual transmission was replaced with a switch, disguised as an automatic
transmission shifter, to control forward and reverse.

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An automatic transmission shifter is used to select forward


and reverse. It contains a small switch, which sends a signal
to the controller.
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A small electric water heater was added to provide heat.

The water heater


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A charger was added so that the batteries could be recharged. This particular car actually has
two charging systems -- one from a normal 120-volt or 240-volt wall outlet, and the other from a
magna-charge inductive charging paddle.

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The 120/240-volt charging system

The Magna-Charge inductive paddle charging system


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The gas gauge was replaced with a volt meter.

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The "gas gauge" in an electric car is either a simple volt meter


or a more sophisticated computer that tracks the flow of amps
to and from the battery pack.

Everything else about the car is stock. When you get in to drive the car, you put the key in the ignition
and turn it to the "on" position to turn the car on. You shift into "Drive" with the shifter, push on the
accelerator pedal and go. It performs like a normal gasoline car. Here are some interesting statistics:
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The range of this car is about 50 miles (80 km).


The 0-to-60 mph time is about 15 seconds.
It takes about 12 kilowatt-hours of electricity to charge the car after a 50-mile trip.
The batteries weigh about 1,100 pounds (500 kg).
The batteries last three to four years.

To compare the cost per mile of gasoline cars to this electric car, here's an example. Electricity in
North Carolina is about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour right now (4 cents if you use time-of-use billing and
recharge at night). That means that for a full recharge, it costs $1 (or 50 cents with time-of-use billing).
The cost per mile is therefore 2 cents per mile, or 1 cent with time-of-use. If gasoline costs $1.20 per
gallon and a car gets 30 miles to the gallon, then the cost per mile is 4 cents per mile for gasoline.
Clearly, the "fuel" for electric vehicles costs a lot less per mile than it does for gasoline vehicles. And
for many, the 50-mile range is not a limitation -- the average person living in a city or suburb seldom
drives more than 30 or 40 miles per day.
To be completely fair, however, we should also include the cost of battery replacement. As discussed
in The Batteries, batteries are the weak link in electric cars at the moment. Battery replacement for
this car runs about $2,000. The batteries will last 20,000 miles or so, for about 10 cents per mile. You
can see why there is so much excitement around fuel cells right now -- fuel cells solve the battery
problem. More details on fuel cells later in the article.

The Controller

The heart of an electric car is the combination of:


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The electric motor


The motor's controller

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The batteries

A simple DC controller connected to the batteries and the DC


motor. If the driver floors the accelerator pedal, the controller
delivers the full 96 volts from the batteries to the motor. If the
driver take his/her foot off the accelerator, the controller
delivers zero volts to the motor. For any setting in between,
the controller "chops" the 96 volts thousands of times per
second to create an average voltage somewhere between 0
and 96 volts.

The controller takes power from the batteries and delivers it to the motor. The accelerator pedal hooks
to a pair of potentiometers (variable resistors), and these potentiometers provide the signal that tells
the controller how much power it is supposed to deliver. The controller can deliver zero power (when
the car is stopped), full power (when the driver floors the accelerator pedal), or any power level in
between.
The controller normally dominates the scene when you open the hood, as you can see here:

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The 300-volt, 50-kilowatt controller for this electric car is the


box marked "U.S. Electricar."

In this car, the controller takes in 300 volts DC from the battery pack. It converts it into a maximum of
240 volts AC, three-phase, to send to the motor. It does this using very large transistors that rapidly
turn the batteries' voltage on and off to create a sine wave.
When you push on the gas pedal, a cable from the pedal connects to these two potentiometers:

The potentiometers hook to the gas pedal and send a signal to


the controller.

The signal from the potentiometers tells the controller how much power to deliver to the electric car's
motor. There are two potentiometers for safety's sake. The controller reads both potentiometers and
makes sure that their signals are equal. If they are not, then the controller does not operate. This
arrangement guards against a situation where a potentiometer fails in the full-on position.

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Heavy cables (on the left) connect the battery pack to the
controller. In the middle is a very large on/off switch. The
bundle of small wires on the right carries signals from
thermometers located between the batteries, as well as power
for fans that keep the batteries cool and ventilated.

The heavy wires entering and leaving the controller

The controller's job in a DC electric car is easy to understand. Let's assume that the battery pack
contains 12 12-volt batteries, wired in series to create 144 volts. The controller takes in 144 volts DC,
and delivers it to the motor in a controlled way.
The very simplest DC controller would be a big on/off switch wired to the accelerator pedal. When you
push the pedal, it would turn the switch on, and when you take your foot off the pedal, it would turn it
off. As the driver, you would have to push and release the accelerator to pulse the motor on and off to
maintain a given speed.

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Obviously, that sort of on/off approach would work but it would be a pain to drive, so the controller
does the pulsing for you. The controller reads the setting of the accelerator pedal from the
potentiometers and regulates the power accordingly. Let's say that you have the accelerator pushed
halfway down. The controller reads that setting from the potentiometer and rapidly switches the power
to the motor on and off so that it is on half the time and off half the time. If you have the accelerator
pedal 25 percent of the way down, the controller pulses the power so it is on 25 percent of the time
and off 75 percent of the time.
Most controllers pulse the power more than 15,000 times per second, in order to keep the pulsation
outside the range of human hearing. The pulsed current causes the motor housing to vibrate at that
frequency, so by pulsing at more than 15,000 cycles per second, the controller and motor are silent to
human ears.

An AC controller hooks to an AC motor. Using six sets of


power transistors, the controller takes in 300 volts DC and
produces 240 volts AC, 3-phase. See How the Power Grid
Works for a discussion of 3-phase power. The controller
additionally provides a charging system for the batteries, and
a DC-to-DC converter to recharge the 12-volt accessory
battery.

In an AC controller, the job is a little more complicated, but it is the same idea. The controller creates
three pseudo-sine waves. It does this by taking the DC voltage from the batteries and pulsing it on
and off. In an AC controller, there is the additional need to reverse the polarity of the voltage 60
times a second. Therefore, you actually need six sets of transistors in an AC controller, while you
need only one set in a DC controller. In the AC controller, for each phase you need one set of
transistors to pulse the voltage and another set to reverse the polarity. You replicate that three times
for the three phases -- six total sets of transistors.
Most DC controllers used in electric cars come from the electric forklift industry. The Hughes AC
controller seen in the photo above is the same sort of AC controller used in the GM/Saturn EV-1
electric vehicle. It can deliver a maximum of 50,000 watts to the motor.

The Motor

Electric cars can use AC or DC motors:

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If the motor is a DC motor, then it may run on anything from 96 to 192 volts. Many of the DC
motors used in electric cars come from the electric forklift industry.

If it is an AC motor, then it probably is a three-phase AC motor running at 240 volts AC with a


300 volt battery pack.

DC installations tend to be simpler and less expensive. A typical motor will be in the 20,000-watt to
30,000-watt range. A typical controller will be in the 40,000-watt to 60,000-watt range (for example, a
96-volt controller will deliver a maximum of 400 or 600 amps). DC motors have the nice feature that
you can overdrive them (up to a factor of 10-to-1) for short periods of time. That is, a 20,000-watt
motor will accept 100,000 watts for a short period of time and deliver 5 times its rated horsepower.
This is great for short bursts of acceleration. The only limitation is heat build-up in the motor. Too
much overdriving and the motor heats up to the point where it self-destructs.
AC installations allow the use of almost any industrial three-phase AC motor, and that can make
finding a motor with a specific size, shape or power rating easier. AC motors and controllers often
have a regen feature. During braking, the motor turns into a generator and delivers power back to the
batteries.

The Batteries

Right now, the weak link in any electric car is the batteries. There are at least six significant problems
with current lead-acid battery technology:
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They are heavy (a typical lead-acid battery pack weighs 1,000 pounds or more).
They are bulky (the car we are examining here has 50 lead-acid batteries, each measuring
roughly 6" x 8" by 6").
They have a limited capacity (a typical lead-acid battery pack might hold 12 to 15 kilowatt-hours
of electricity, giving a car a range of only 50 miles or so).
They are slow to charge (typical recharge times for a lead-acid pack range between four to 10
hours for full charge, depending on the battery technology and the charger).
They have a short life (three to four years, perhaps 200 full charge/discharge cycles).
They are expensive (perhaps $2,000 for the battery pack shown in the sample car).

You can replace lead-acid batteries with NiMH batteries. The range of the car will double and the
batteries will last 10 years (thousands of charge/discharge cycles), but the cost of the batteries today
is 10 to 15 times greater than lead-acid. In other words, an NiMH battery pack will cost $20,000 to
$30,000 (today) instead of $2,000. Prices for advanced batteries fall as they become mainstream, so
over the next several years it is likely that NiMH and lithium-ion battery packs will become competitive
with lead-acid battery prices. Electric cars will have significantly better range at that point.
When you look at the problems associated with batteries, you gain a different perspective on
gasoline. Two gallons of gasoline, which weighs 15 pounds, costs $3.00 and takes 30 seconds to
pour into the tank, is equivalent to 1,000 pounds of lead-acid batteries that cost $2,000 and take four
hours to recharge.
The problems with battery technology explain why there is so much excitement around fuel cells
today. Compared to batteries, fuel cells will be smaller, much lighter and instantly rechargeable. When
powered by pure hydrogen, fuel cells have none of the environmental problems associated with
gasoline. It is very likely that the car of the future will be an electric car that gets its electricity from a
fuel cell. There is still a lot of research and development that will have to occur, however, before
inexpensive, reliable fuel cells can power automobiles.

Accessory Battery

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Just about any electric car has one other battery on board. This is the normal 12-volt lead-acid battery
that every car has. The 12-volt battery provides power for accessories -- things like headlights, radios,
fans, computers, air bags, wipers, power windows and instruments inside the car. Since all of these
devices are readily available and standardized at 12 volts, it makes sense from an economic
standpoint for an electric car to use them.
Therefore, an electric car has a normal 12-volt lead-acid battery to power all of the accessories. To
keep the battery charged, an electric car needs a DC-to-DC converter. This converter takes in the
DC power from the main battery array (at, for example, 300 volts DC) and converts it down to 12 volts
to recharge the accessory battery. When the car is on, the accessories get their power from the DCto-DC converter. When the car is off, they get their power from the 12-volt battery as in any gasolinepowered vehicle.
The DC-to-DC converter is normally a separate box under the hood, but sometimes this box is built
into the controller.

The Charging System

Any electric car that uses batteries needs a charging system to recharge the batteries. The charging
system has two goals:
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To pump electricity into the batteries as quickly as the batteries will allow
To monitor the batteries and avoid damaging them during the charging process

The most sophisticated charging systems monitor battery voltage,


current flow and battery temperature to minimize charging time. The
charger sends as much current as it can without raising battery
temperature too much. Less sophisticated chargers might monitor
voltage or amperage only and make certain assumptions about
average battery characteristics. A charger like this might apply
maximum current to the batteries up through 80 percent of their
capacity, and then cut the current back to some preset level for the
final 20 percent to avoid overheating the batteries.
Jon Mauney's electric car actually has two different charging
systems. One system accepts 120-volt or 240-volt power from a
normal electrical outlet. The other is the Magna-Charge inductive
charging system popularized by the GM/Saturn EV-1 vehicle. Let's
look at each of these systems separately.

Normal Household Power

Charging Current
When lead-acid batteries are at
a low state of charge, nearly all
the charging current is
absorbed by the chemical
reaction. Once the state of
charge reaches a certain point,
at about 80 percent of capacity,
more and more energy goes
into heat and electrolysis of the
water. The resulting bubbling of
electrolyte is informally called
"boiling." For the charging
system to minimize the boiling,
the charging current must cut
back for the last 20 percent of
the charging process.

The normal household charging system has the advantage of convenience -- anywhere you can find
an outlet, you can recharge. The disadvantage is charging time.
A normal household 120-volt outlet typically has a 15-amp circuit breaker, meaning that the maximum
amount of energy that the car can consume is approximately 1,500 watts, or 1.5 kilowatt-hours per
hour. Since the battery pack in Jon's car normally needs 12 to 15 kilowatt-hours for a full recharge, it
can take 10 to 12 hours to fully charge the vehicle using this technique.
By using a 240-volt circuit (such as the outlet for an electric dryer), the car might be able to receive
240 volts at 30 amps, or 6.6 kilowatt-hours per hour. This arrangement allows significantly faster
charging, and can fully recharge the battery pack in four to five hours.
In Jon's car, the gas filler spout has been removed and replaced by a charging plug. Simply plugging

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into the wall with a heavy-duty extension cord starts the charging process.

Opening the gas filler door reveals the charging plug.

Close-up of the plug

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Photo courtesy Jon Mauney

Plug the car in anywhere to recharge.

In this car, the charger is built into the controller. In most home-brew cars, the charger is a separate
box located under the hood, or could even be a free-standing unit that is separate from the car.

The Magna-Charge System


The Magna-Charge system consists of two parts:
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A charging station mounted to the wall of the house

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Photo courtesy Jon Mauney

A charging system in the trunk of the car

The charging station is hard-wired to a 240-volt 40-amp circuit through the house's circuit panel.
The charging system sends electricity to the car using this inductive paddle:

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Photo courtesy Jon Mauney

The paddle fits into a slot hidden behind the license plate of the car.

Photo courtesy Jon Mauney

The paddle acts as one half of a transformer. The other half is inside the car, positioned around the
slot behind the license plate. When you insert the paddle, it forms a complete transformer with the
slot, and power transfers to the car.
One advantage of the inductive system is that there are no exposed electrical contacts. You can
touch the paddle or drop the paddle into a puddle of water and there is no hazard. The other
advantage is the ability to pump a significant amount of current into the car very quickly because the
charging station is hard-wired to a dedicated 240-volt circuit.
The competing high-power charge connector is generally referred to as the "Avcon plug" and it is
used by Ford and others. It features copper-to-copper contacts instead of the inductive paddle, and

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has an elaborate mechanical interconnect that keeps the contacts covered until the connector is
mated with the receptacle on the vehicle. Pairing this connector with GFCI protection makes it safe in
any kind of weather.

Equalization
Jon Mauney points out the following:
An important feature of the charging process is "equalization." An EV has a string of batteries
(somewhere between 10 and 25 modules, each containing three to six cells). The batteries are
closely matched, but they are not identical. Therefore they have slight differences in capacity and
internal resistance. All batteries in a string necessarily put out the same current (laws of electricity),
but the weaker batteries have to "work harder" to produce the current, so they're at a slightly lower
state of charge at the end of the drive. Therefore, the weaker batteries need more recharge to get
back to full charge.
Since the batteries are in series, they also get exactly the same amount of recharge, leaving the
weak battery even weaker (relatively) than it was before. Over time, this results in one battery going
bad long before the rest of the pack. The weakest-link effect means that this battery determines the
range of the vehicle, and the usability of the car drops off.
The common solution to the problem is "equalization charge." You gently overcharge the batteries
to make sure that the weakest cells are brought up to full charge. The trick is to keep the batteries
equalized without damaging the strongest batteries with overcharging. There are more complex
solutions that scan the batteries, measure individual voltages, and send extra charging current
through the weakest module.

Doing a Conversion

A majority of the electric cars on the road today are "home brew" conversion vehicles. People with an
interest in electric cars convert existing gasoline-powered cars to electric in their backyards and
garages. There are many Web sites that talk about the phenomenon and show you how to do it,
where to get parts, etc.
A typical conversion uses a DC controller and a DC motor. The person doing the conversion
decides what voltage the system will run at -- typically anything between 96 volts and 192 volts. The
voltage decision controls how many batteries the car will need, and what sort of motor and controller
the car will use. The most common motors and controllers used in home conversions come from the
electric forklift industry.
Usually, the person doing the conversion has a "donor vehicle" that will act as the platform for the
conversion. Almost always, the donor vehicle is a normal gasoline-powered car that gets converted to
electric. Most donor vehicles have a manual transmission.
The person doing the conversion has a lot of choices when it comes to battery technology. The vast
majority of home conversions use lead-acid batteries, and there are several different options:
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Marine deep-cycle lead-acid batteries (These are available everywhere, including Wal-mart.)
Golf-cart batteries
High-performance sealed batteries

The batteries can have a flooded, gelled or AGM (absorbed glass mat) electrolyte. Flooded batteries
tend to have the lowest cost but also the lowest peak power.
Once the decisions about the motor, controller and batteries are made, the conversion can start. Here
are the steps:

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1. Remove the engine, gas tank, exhaust system, clutch and perhaps the radiator from the donor
vehicle. Some controllers have water-cooled transistors, while some are air-cooled.
2. Attach an adapter plate to the transmission and mount the motor. The motor normally requires
custom mounting brackets.
3. Usually, the electric motor needs a reduction gear for maximum efficiency. The easiest way to
create the gear reduction is to pin the existing manual transmission in first or second gear. It
would save weight to create a custom reduction gear, but normally it is too expensive.
4. Mount the controller.
5. Find space for, and build brackets to safely hold, all the batteries. Install the batteries. Sealed
batteries have the advantage that they can be turned on their sides and fitted into all sorts of
nooks and crannies.
6. Wire the batteries and motor to the controller with #00 gauge welding cable.
7. If the car has power steering, wire up and mount an electric motor for the power steering pump.
8. If the car has air conditioning, wire up and mount an electric motor for the A/C compressor.
9. Install a small electric water heater for heat and plumb it into the existing heater core, or use a
small ceramic electric space heater.
10. If the car has power brakes, install a vacuum pump to operate the brake booster.
11. Install a charging system.
12. Install a DC-to-DC converter to power the accessory battery.
13. Install some sort of volt meter to be able to detect state of charge in the battery pack. This volt
meter replaces the gas gauge.
14. Install potentiometers, hook them to the accelerator pedal and connect to the controller.
15. Most home-brew electric cars using DC motors use the reverse gear built into the manual
transmission. AC motors with advanced controllers simply run the motor in reverse and need a
simple switch that sends a reverse signal to the controller. Depending on the conversion, you
may need to install some sort of reverse switch and wire to the controller.
16. Install a large relay (also known as a contactor) that can connect and disconnect the car's
battery pack to and from the controller. This relay is how you turn the car "on" when you want to
drive it. You need a relay that can carry hundreds of amps and that can break 96 to 300 volts
DC without holding an arc.
17. Rewire the ignition switch so that it can turn on all the new equipment, including the contactor.
Once everything is installed and tested, the new electric car is ready to go!
A typical conversion, if it is using all new parts, costs between $5,000 and $10,000 (not counting the
cost of the donor vehicle or labor). The costs break down like this:

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Batteries - $1,000 to $2,000


Motor - $1,000 to $2,000
Controller - $1,000 to $2,000
Adapter plate - $500 to $1,000
Other (motors, wiring, switches, etc.) - $500 to $1,000

The EV Challenge

The EV Challenge (www.evchallenge.org) is an innovative program for middle and high school
students that centers around building electric-powered cars:
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Middle school students build and compete model solar-powered cars.

High school students convert full-sized gasoline-powered vehicles into electric vehicles. It's a
complete conversion project, as described in the previous section of this article. Students learn
about electric technology throughout the year and then come together for a two-day finale. In
addition to building the electric vehicle, high school students compete in autocross (speed and
agility) and range events, vehicle design, oral presentations, troubleshooting, Web site design,
and community involvement.

The EV Challenge gets a majority of its funding from corporate sponsors and government
organizations, including Advanced Energy Corporation, CP&L/Progress Energy, Duke Power,
Dominion Virginia Power, the NC Energy Office, the NC Department of Environment and Natural
Resources, and the EPA.

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Jon Mauney (whose car is featured at the beginning of this article) is on the steering committee for EV
Challenge. According to Jon, CP&L started the EV Challenge program in North Carolina. The program
then spread to South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, West Virginia, and Georgia, and is now spreading
nationwide. Thousands of students have participated in the EV Challenge.
If you or your school would like more information on the EV Challenge program, please see
www.evchallenge.org.
For more information on electric cars and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information


Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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How Fuel Cells Work


How Hybrid Cars Work
How the Hydrogen Economy Works
How Gasoline Works
How Electric Motors Work
How Solar Cells Work

More Great Links


Citicar - world's simplest electric car
The links below can help you learn a lot about the essence of an electric car. The controller on a
Citicar, in particular, is extremely simple.
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Citicar description
Personal Two Year Electric Car Commuting Study
Citicar wiring diagrams

Companies/groups that help with conversions


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The Electric Auto Association


Electro Automotive
Electric Vehicles of America
So You Want to Build an Electric Car
EV Trading Post
Town Car: A 100-mpg Hybrid-Electric Car

Electric car conversion stories


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Jerry's Electric Car Conversion


My Electric Car
Electric Porsche 944
North SF Bay Electric Auto Association

Production electric cars


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The GM EV1 - perhaps the best-known electric car


Corbin - makers of the Sparrow
Feel Good Cars - makers of the ZENN

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Th!nk Mobility

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