The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Electric Vehicles

What to know about EVs in a quick, easy-to-understand guide

Woman dangling keys to her new EV.


Gasoline powered vehicles still represent the lion’s share of the auto market but EV technology has matured to the point where you may find yourself wondering if your next car might be electric. If you’re interested in EVs, but you don’t know where to start, we can help you learn what they are, what they can do, and where they’re going. 

What, Exactly, Is an EV?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are on the rise, with sales increasing every year, and a huge variety of models available from just about every major manufacturer. An EV is just a vehicle that uses batteries instead of fossil fuel as a power source. In the same way that a gasoline-powered vehicle has a gas tank that provides fuel to its engine, an EV has a set of batteries that provide power to an electric motor.

There are a lot of different kinds of EVs, including battery electric vehicles (BEVs) that only use battery power, and a variety of hybrids that use both gasoline and battery power. Some electric vehicles even use hydrogen-powered fuel cells, but only pure battery-powered electric vehicles offer the convenience of charging at your own home.

How EVs Differ From Gasoline Vehicles

EVs and gasoline vehicles can look similar on the outside, but they’re quite different on the inside. Instead of a gas tank, an EV has a set of powerful batteries. And instead of a gas-powered engine that emits various greenhouse gases as byproducts of combustion, EVs have electric motors that produce no emissions.

Instead of fueling up your EV at the local gas station, you plug it into a charger when it isn’t in use, just like you do with your phone and other portable electronics.

EVs often offer better performance than gasoline vehicles, higher efficiency, and even more interior storage space. They also tend to be more expensive when comparing similar vehicles, but prices have come down over the years, and many EV models qualify for federal tax credits, state credits and rebates, and other programs.

How Electric Vehicles Work

Electric vehicles work by storing energy in batteries, and then using that energy to run an electric motor. The batteries are usually charged by plugging into a charging station, but wireless charging also exists, and some EVs have even used solar power.

An electric vehicle can have one electric motor in the same way that gasoline vehicles have an engine, or there can be a separate electric motor for each wheel. A single motor is usually more economical and affordable, while EVs with separate motors can offer improved handling and even pull off tricks like “tank turning” that gasoline vehicles just can’t do.

While it isn’t necessarily practical, a “tank turn” is an interesting maneuver where a vehicle rotates in place without moving forward or backward.

When an EV needs to slow down, it can also run its motor in reverse and use it as a generator. This technique is called regenerative braking, and it allows the EV to charge its own batteries, recapture some expended energy, and improve efficiency.

EVs that have all wheel drive, or one motor per wheel, are capable of recapturing even more energy when slowing down.

Since EVs don’t require big gasoline engines, transmissions, and other components, they are often more spacious inside than their gasoline vehicle counterparts. More storage is often available as well, with some EVs providing both a traditional trunk in the rear and a frunk, or front trunk, in the space where a gasoline vehicle’s engine would be.

EVs are also much quieter in operation, which is another byproduct of using battery-powered motors instead of gas-powered engines.

How Are EVs Charged?

Basic hybrid electric vehicles charge themselves as they drive, but battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids both have to be plugged in to charge. Charging can take place at a municipal or commercial charging station, or at a residential charging station.

Charging stations can be found at businesses, gas stations, apartment buildings, and you can even install a charging station in your own home.

Charging an electric vehicle is a lot like charging anything else. Instead of having a gas cap that you remove to pump in fuel, EVs have an electrical connector. To charge an EV, you plug the charging cable from a charging station into the charging connector on the vehicle, and the batteries charge.

Fast charge stations deliver power more quickly, while lower-powered home chargers are designed to slowly charge overnight.

Wireless charging is also available, and it works the same way as wireless phone charging. Vehicles that can take advantage of this method have a wireless charging receiver built into their underside, and charging is achieved by parking the vehicle over a wireless charging mat.

Battery capacity and other important advances have only recently made it possible for EVs to compete with gasoline vehicles in terms of range and performance.

Who Is an EV Designed For?

Electric vehicles are designed for everyone, and there are models to suit just about any circumstance. From affordable family sedans and hatchbacks on one end of the spectrum, to two-door supercars on the other, you can even find EV trucks, SUVs, and crossovers.

While just about anyone should be able to find an EV to suit their needs, EVs are better suited to some circumstances than others. The biggest limiting factor is charging, which can be an issue for some people due to their living circumstances.

If you live in an apartment or condo complex that doesn’t offer EV charging, then keeping an EV charged can be troublesome. The same is true if you live in a home that only has street parking. Some municipalities have EV charging infrastructure, but that may not yet be an option where you live.

Range has also been a sticking point in the past, but you should take a look at the current options if that was ever your biggest stumbling block. Long-range EVs are competitive with gasoline vehicle ranges, and charging stations are also widespread in a lot of areas.

If there aren’t a lot of charging stations where you live and travel, that’s likely to change in the coming years. 

Why the Auto Industry Is Switching to EVs

EVs have been around for over 100 years, but they were almost entirely sidelined by gasoline vehicles for most of that time. The automotive industry has always experimented with the technology, but battery capacity and other important advances have only recently made it possible for EVs to compete with gasoline vehicles in terms of range and performance.

Even though EVs still represent just a small piece of the entire automotive industry, the industry as a whole has started to shift toward battery power and away from fossil fuels. Part of that is due to the industry betting that consumer demand will increase as people become more familiar and comfortable with EVs, but there’s also a regulatory aspect.

Some states have already set deadlines to eventually end the sale of new gasoline vehicles, and it’s likely that others will eventually follow suit. A federal mandate could also eventually end the sale of new gas-powered vehicles throughout the United States. That’s likely to be years, if not decades, in the future, but the automotive industry wants to be ready when it happens.

EV Ownership and Operating Cost

The costs of owning and operating an EV tend to be lower than the costs of owning and operating a similar gasoline vehicle for a number of reasons. License and tag fees are lower in some areas, EVs are cheaper to charge than gasoline vehicles are to fuel up, and EVs also tend to require less ongoing maintenance.

Buying an EV may also be more affordable than you expect, due to a federal EV tax credit that applies to most EVs, and state incentives that can reduce the price even further.

Many of the costs associated with owning and operating an EV are dependent on where you live. For example, some states offer credits or don’t charge you sales tax when you buy an EV. Other states charge less for licencing or tags or have other helpful programs. There is also a federal tax credit to reduce the cost of buying an EV, and it applies to most EVs.

The biggest savings is due to how much more efficient EVs are. In most cases, you’ll pay far less for electricity than you would for gas to drive an equivalent gasoline vehicle the same distance. Electricity prices do vary widely from one place to another, but some states even offer reduced electricity prices if you charge your vehicle during certain times of the day.

EVs tend to require less ongoing maintenance than gasoline vehicles. The main components in an EV, including the battery, electric motor, and the electronics that tie everything together, require little or no regular maintenance, which is a sharp departure from gasoline vehicles.

There are no fluids, like engine oil and transmission fluid, to change on a regular basis, and even the brakes last longer due to help from regenerative braking systems. 

The Nissan Leaf can achieve a 0 to 60 MPH time of under nine seconds, compared to the 10+ seconds it takes the smaller, lighter gas-powered Chevy Spark.

EV Range is Farther Than You Think

Range has always been one of the biggest advantages that gasoline vehicles have over EVs, but that gap has closed.

There are a lot of short-range EVs designed primarily for short trips and in-city driving, but you can also find EVs that are capable of traveling 300 miles or more on a single charge.

Taking an EV on a long road trip still requires more advanced planning than driving a gas-powered vehicle, but even that is far easier than it was in the past.

Performance: As Good as a Gasoline Vehicle?

Contrary to some popular misconceptions, EVs typically offer superior performance to gasoline vehicles in a lot of aspects. While EV performance varies between different makes and models, all EVs benefit from the fact that they use drivetrains that are fairly simple compared to gasoline vehicles.

When you push down on the accelerator pedal in an EV, the transition between being stationary and moving is limited only by the ability of the tires to grip the road. There is no ramp up like you get in a gasoline powered vehicle, as the electric motor in an EV is capable of applying all of its available torque the moment the accelerator is depressed.

In fact, some high end EVs can go from 0 to 60 MPH in less than two seconds. Even a modest hatchback like the Nissan Leaf can achieve a 0 to 60 MPH time of under nine seconds, compared to the 10+ seconds it takes the smaller, lighter gas-powered Chevy Spark.

EV Insurance Costs

Insuring an EV works the same as insuring any vehicle. Since Insurance costs are based largely on how much it will cost the insurer to repair or replace your vehicle in the case of an accident, EVs typically cost a little more to insure than gasoline vehicles. This isn’t a universal rule though, and some EVs even cost less to insure than the national average.

The bottom line is that if you buy an expensive EV that’s expensive to fix or replace, then you can expect your insurance costs to reflect that. Some insurance companies do offer discounts to electric vehicle owners though, so it’s important to check with different insurers instead of just sticking with the one you already have.

How Do I Buy an EV?

The process of buying an EV is more or less the same as buying a gasoline vehicle, with some exceptions. Some EV manufacturers, like Tesla, sell direct to consumers, which is a departure from the dealership system you may be used to. Other manufacturers sell through dealerships, and you’re likely to see EVs right next to gasoline vehicles if you head to a dealership for a test drive.

Another wrinkle that you’re unlikely to run into when buying a gasoline vehicle is that some EVs are available only as pre-orders. Those vehicles are either not yet available, or demand has outstripped supply. In some cases, you can pay a fee to reserve a vehicle that’s in pre-order status, and then choose whether or not to purchase it when it becomes available.

In other cases, you can instead order a vehicle customized to your exact specifications, sign a purchase agreement, and then take receipt of the vehicle when it becomes available. The exact process will depend on the specific vehicle and manufacturer, so make sure to check for details if the vehicle you want is in pre-order status.

The other thing you need to be aware of when buying an EV is that you may be eligible for tax credits, rebates, and other incentives. Most EVs qualify for federal tax rebate, which you can apply for when you file your taxes. Some states have additional programs that provide a credit on your state taxes, reduced or waived sales taxes, or even a direct rebate. Before you buy an EV, make sure to check into the available programs where you live, and consult with a tax professional if necessary.

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