Home » Most People Have No Clue How Electric Cars Work, But We’re Going To Change That

Most People Have No Clue How Electric Cars Work, But We’re Going To Change That

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I’m going to tell you a little story about the launch of the Renault ZOE that, depending on your level of cynicism, might surprise you. Now, I know that you folk have no clue what the hell a Renault ZOE even is. Well, consider it the Nissan Leaf’s cuter French sister…just as intelligent and environmentally conscious, but, well, just more attractive somehow.

The ZOE a small, Fiesta-sized BEV that was developed roughly in parallel with the Nissan Leaf and launched about 18 months after it, in late 2012. You’ve never seen one over on the far side of the Atlantic as it was never federalized (designed for American safety standards), but it’s a pretty big deal in Europe, having been the best-selling EV over here for many years, only recently being dethroned by Elon’s baby 3.

Vidframe Min Top
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It turns out that I was lucky enough to be the chief engineer for the ZOE, which is to say the person who gets to stay up at night staring at the ceiling and worrying about project costs, Bill of Materials, that goddam supplier who keeps being late, the latest software glitch in the charging systems and whether another coffee would help put him to sleep. Cars take a long time to develop – four years, give or take – and they can be somewhat stressful, so the Press Launch is usually a huge relief. You get to stay in fancy hotels, eat far too much, and finally get to show your baby off to the world’s automotive hacks. Basically, you get paid to talk endlessly about cars for a few days. Sweet work, if you can get it.

Renault Zoe Portugal
Wow, he wasn’t lying, the photos from this Portugal press launch are amazing. – MH

But the sweetness of the ZOE Press Launch was slightly ruined for me. Here we were in Lisbon, Portugal, staying in a lovely hotel. The weather was beautiful, the team recce’-d some fantastic roads, there were beaches and far too many of those delicious little Pastéis de Nata pastries that were invented in Lisbon. The car was going great, the assembled journos seemed to like it – in short, all was right with the world. But something was nagging at me, causing yet more night-time ceiling-staring.

[Editor’s Note: David Twohig is a legend in the automotive engineering world, having not just led the development of the hugely important Renault Zoe, but also having worked on projects like the Alpine A110 and Nissan Qashqai. He has a book out called Inside The Machine, he contributes regularly to The Intercooler, and he’s someone I will continue to push to have on these here pages of The Autopian — a website led by an engineer and read by thousands of Ti-89-wielding nerds. -DT]

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The Day The Glass Shattered

Renault Zoe Hoodopen

On the first day I was hanging around the hotel parking lot that we were using as a dispatch area for the journalists to come and go on their test drives. I was just mooching around, chatting to the press, making myself available and being the good corporate soldier, doling our bite-size quotable techy nuggets, and answering any vaguely technical questions. I was standing next to one of the cars with a gaggle of journalists when one of them said “Hey, could you pop the hood?”

My pleasure, says I, and duly opened up the business end of the car. We all did that thing that dudes do – and yes, I am afraid that we were all dudes as the European car industry was pretty testosterone-saturated in those days (still is, truth be told…)– and leaned into the engine bay to check out the mill.

Renault Zoe Drivetrain

Silence. Nobody said a damn word. No comments, no questions – not even any ridicule. I snuck a glance at the faces around me, and the problem started to dawn on me. Here were half a dozen very experienced automotive journalists. A couple of them were very well-known figures, big hitters in the (Euro) car-scribe world. And the faces were blank. It dawned on me that these guys had no idea at all what they were looking at. They did not know which of the boxes were which. They simply did not recognize the ‘stuff’ under the hood. The various cooling hoses for the power electronics, the orange HV cables and the complex plumbing of the Heat Pump system might as well have been a bunch of spaghetti to them. They were saying nothing because they had nothing to say.

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Now, think about that for a moment. You’ve dedicated your professional life to cars, and to writing or broadcasting about them. You’re probably a genuine car enthusiast in your spare time. You may well have built or restored a bunch of cars. You KNOW cars, dammit! Cars are not just a job, they are your identity. You know a gudgeon pin (OK, wrist pin if you really must) from a scraper ring, and your VTEC from your VAMOS.

Renault Zoe Portugal 2

Now this dude pops a hood and you have no freaking idea what he’s showing you. It’s like the world just stopped. Worse, all your damn colleagues (and rivals) are standing there right next to you. If you ask a dumb question, they will all know that the floor just dropped out of your world.

Honesty, I felt like shit. I was embarrassed, for me, and for them. So I did my best to rescue the situation. I said something clunky like “You know, it always gets me just how small the actual motor itself is – see, it, down there? The thing like a tiny beer keg?” They nodded, sagely. I then guided them ’round the main under-hood components with a cheesy running commentary designed to tell them what was what without them having to ask me anything, stuff like: “And of course, that big box on top with the four big orange cables there is the main inverter, as you know…” etc etc. It was toe-curling, but within 10 minutes or so, I felt that at least these guys had had an EV-101. They started to relax a bit, started to ask me questions, and of course crack some typical EV jokes. The moment passed and I felt a little bit better.

But here’s the thing. It’s now nearly 10 years on, and I think that we’re still not much further ahead. Of course, most people have driven an EV by now. People know that they have Lithium-ion batteries, like the ones in all our smartphones. Folks interested in cars will have heard of permanent-magnet motors and maybe even how BMW just brought out some kind of motor with no magnets in it, however the hell that works.

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Renault Zoe Motor

But there are a ton of other things – these mysterious ‘inverters’, for example, not to mention a whole raft of acronyms like HVJB, OBC, BMS, BDU. But even today, not many folks outside the OEM’s engineering offices know how EVs actually work. I mean really understand how they work – beyond just a vague notion that you connect a battery to a motor and it spins up, like Tamiya RC car.

I mean knowing what the parts are and how they really work. Sure, if you have some technical aptitude, a ton of time and a lot of bandwidth on your hands, there is a lot of interesting stuff out there on YouTube and in the darker corners of the Web with which to educate yourself about EV technology. But it takes a lot of patience to piece it all together.

What We’re Doing About It

Renault Zoe Drivetrain Parts

But your good buddies at The Autopian are here to save the day. We thought we’d make an effort to compile a series of in-depth technical articles to try to dispel some of the mystery and the bullshit around EV technology. Jason and David have somehow persuaded (and are looking to persuade more) real car engineers to do help with this. What The Autopian plans to do is a series of technical articles that will walk you through the basic EV building blocks, following those pesky little electronics all the way from deep inside the battery cells themselves, through the amazingly complex power electronics to the stator (and maybe even the rotor, kidz…) of the traction motor that turns the rubber on the road.

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The Autopian will track ’em the other way too, from the charge-point to the On Board Charger (OBC – that’s one acronym down…) right back up those thick orange wires to snuggle safely in the anodes of those battery cells. Very importantly, we’ll talk about the peripheral systems – HVAC and braking in particular – that are completely different between IC-engined cars and EVs. And – hopefully without scaring the bejeezus out of anyone – we’ll talk quite a lot about safety systems in these vehicles, maybe killing a few myths along the way.

Buckle up, folks, because the Autopian has briefed a gaggle of EV enginerds, and implored them to geek out as much as they want to so this series of pieces should satisfy the hungriest of EV fact-hunters out there.

So, keep tuned in and watch out for this: Incoming! Watch out TOMORROW for my big “How EVs Work” overview. You won’t want to miss it.

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Erik Waiss
Erik Waiss
22 days ago

This is Rad, thank you for stepping up with the 101.

Parsko
Parsko
22 days ago

This is fantastic. What an awesome idea. popping corn now.

Mat M. O’Dowd
Mat M. O’Dowd
22 days ago

I’m a happy owner of a 2016 Zoé in France.

How much did it cost?
We bought it second hand two years ago for 6,500 € ($ 7,026). With the government incentives our car cost us 2,750 € ($2,972) in the end.

It had 25,000 km (15,534.28 miles), I put 15,000 km (9,300 miles) on it since then.

The monthly battery insurance:
The first Zoé were linked to a battery insurance program, ours is among them. Every month on top of the charging cost I pay 59€ ($64) for this battery plan. In return, if the battery goes below 72% efficiency, then it is replaced by Renault without extra cost. Considering the price of new batteries it’s not so bad.

Charging cost:
It costs 0.20 €/kW to charge, so a full 22 kW charge costs 4.40 € ($ 4.76) for 160 km (100 miles). I charge once a week for an urban use, maybe twice a week for an intensive semi urban use. So between 20 to 40 €/month in electricity ($20 to $40).

Why am I telling you this?
If I write all of this, it’s to give you a bit of context about the car this article was about.
——

All of this to say I’m excited to learn how our Zap Shuttle works. Yes, Zap Shuttle is the official name we gave our Zoé. And even more excited, to learn it all from the horse’s mouth, sorry, the chief engineer!

Thank you Mr Twohig

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
22 days ago

Really excited to read all of these articles. Most of us really don’t understand how EV’s work.

Now that I think of it, I’ve had very, very little EV user experience at all. I’m a car nerd that wants to test anything I can get my hands on. But outside of a Focus Electric many years ago, a Bolt a couple of years ago, and an e-tron last year, I’ve only driven 3 electric cars ever. The only reason I ever got those opportunities is because a friend of mine works for a solar/EV charger installer, and they tend to have EVs hanging around.

In summary, unless I’m a total outlier (I am pretty far north where EV adoption rates are very very low), we’re pretty darn far behind when it comes to user experience and the resulting technical knowledge that comes from ownership experiences from curious people.

JDE
JDE
23 days ago

SO did the Euro only Leaf maybe have a better go at it with perhaps longer lived and cheaper replacement battery options? Or are they mostly boat anchors at this point too?

Liamlunchtray1
Liamlunchtray1
23 days ago

This is great! I’ve found that general understanding of how EV’s work is low and the penetration of anti EV rhetoric from the petroleum industry is high. In just a couple years they have managed to convince large swaths of “car guys” that the macho manly aspect of cars is not how fast they are, but how far they can go between fuel stops. Wild Times!

DadBod
DadBod
23 days ago

Thank you for this article, I just picked up an F150 Lightning and am giggling with delight

JDE
JDE
23 days ago
Reply to  DadBod

Yours is more covered up with inner frunk liners and /or hung under the vehicle where engines and transmissions used to be.

DadBod
DadBod
23 days ago
Reply to  JDE

well yeah, the frunk is awesome. I am looking forward to the series explaining what the hell is going on underneath me

Nic Periton
Nic Periton
23 days ago

I have a machine that turns stones and water into propulsion, that also can make electricity happen. After 60 years I think I understand it, do not ever ask me about it, I can explain what a poppet valve is and why, and really do not ask about the spinning thing, mainly it is magic, please do not confuse me with all this actually knowing stuff. ( Mainly it is piskies anyway)

StalePhish
StalePhish
23 days ago

Of course, most people have driven an EV by now. People know that they have Lithium-ion batteries, like the ones in all our smartphones.

Honestly I think that’s even stretching it. I don’t even think most people (at least Americans) have even -been in- an EV before, let alone have driven one. The common man here seems to think they contain 8,000 pounds of solid lithium and cobalt ready to combust at any second mined by slave children in Africa just so it can drive 100 miles and cost $17 per gallon in electricity to fill up, in the 4 hours you spend milling about next to the car preventing you from ever taking a road trip out of state.

Last edited 23 days ago by StalePhish
JDE
JDE
23 days ago
Reply to  StalePhish

closer to 4,000 lbs, but probably not entirely inaccurate in some crowds.

StalePhish
StalePhish
21 days ago
Reply to  JDE

My entire 300 mile range EV, batteries and all, weighs less than that

Liamlunchtray1
Liamlunchtray1
23 days ago
Reply to  StalePhish

People are definitely unaware of the batteries. They will be all up in arms about cobalt and seem to be totally unaware that they could just buy an EV that uses LFP lithium instead of NMC lithium – It will contain no cobalt, and doesn’t burst into flames when punctured. There also seems to be a common misconception that EV’s cost more to charge than gas costs, which is bonkers. You can figure that out with a calculator and your electric bill. Then there are the folks insisting that with an EV the manufacturer could disable your car remotely, as if that’s absolutely impossible with an ICE. I guess they just assume everyone is driving a ’65 pontiac or something.

Camp Fire
Camp Fire
22 days ago
Reply to  Liamlunchtray1

Remotely bricking a car isn’t a hypothetical, it’s something that has already happened to multiple brands of car. Yes, it has nothing to do with ICE vs. EV. But it’s still a disturbing trend. Nobody wants a bricked car, regardless of fuel type.

StalePhish
StalePhish
21 days ago
Reply to  Camp Fire

My 2009 Pontiac with a gas V8, by design, can be remotely disabled. So yeah, nothing to do with EVs, and nothing new either

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
23 days ago

I probably ought to be embarrassed, but I simply care as little about the electrical engine in an EV as about my phone’s internals. I expect it to work and I expect there to be torque, but no interest in the how or why. I also don’t enjoy doing electrical work around the house.
But then again, I am not an automotive journalist, so I think I am excused. Possibly my kids will be salivating over inverters and needlessly complicated German solutions, and that’s fine. ICE engines are fine for enthusiasts and we will depend on EVs for moving around (when appropriate).

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
23 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

To be fair though, that’s not the reality, you need to know what type of battery chemistry you have. If you have an LFP (Lithium Iron Phosphate) battery (newer to the market and not in many cars yet) then charging to 100% and going all the way down to 0% is not as harmful as doing it with a Li-Ion battery or NMC Li-Ion battery to expand on the actual battery chemistry. With a Li-Ion NMC battery you don’t really want to charge to 100% (you probably can’t anyway via software lockouts) and don’t want to leave it at 100% for extended periods.
Also coming to the market are Sodium-Ion batteries also know as salt batteries, these will have different characteristics as well.
For reference LFP batteries are 20-30% cheaper than Li-Ion batteries.
Salt batteries are even less cost, as salt is very abundant when compared to Lithium.

JDE
JDE
23 days ago
Reply to  My 0.02 Cents

LFP also require 20-30% more material to produce the same range, but they also tend to survive more recharge cycles. the 2012 or so Nissan Leaf that is noted in this article used lithium In batteries, but only 30KW or so which put it at a serious handicap from the start. 130 miles of range at best. at 55k miles on the clock the the average remaining battery life or max charge they take is around 65%, so 80 ish miles per charge. Mostly this is perceived to be caused by air cooling versus liquid cooling in the Leaf. This would be something a saavy Electric car shopper would want to know of course. They might also want to know if a Heat pump was employed versus a high amp heating coil, as this would also affect the already lowish range.

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
23 days ago
Reply to  JDE

All excellent points well said sir.

Liamlunchtray1
Liamlunchtray1
23 days ago
Reply to  My 0.02 Cents

I use LFP batteries in my RV for solar and I work in the UPS industry where my product line uses LFP exclusively. Aside from the lower power density theyre a huge improvement over NMC. Sodium is also low power density, but that is going to make a huge impact on cost reduction and the environmental/ethical issues.

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
22 days ago
Reply to  Liamlunchtray1

Huh, I very occasionally purchase reasonably large UPS’s, although recently they’ve been of the flywheel variety, and very expensive… But cheaper than having the lights go off in an O.R. They like the patients to live.
Typically static storage doesn’t have size constraints, at least when compared to the automotive battery size / density requirements.
Do you have a residential product line?

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
23 days ago
Reply to  My 0.02 Cents

Yeah, I expect to have to know how to use it properly and I would expect to compare the various options when I am in the market. It just doesn’t interest me any more than how my fridge or my phone functions, whereas I am somehow intrigued by pushrods and other oily bits.

But again – I am not an automotive writer – they ought to be excited!

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
22 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

I get you, it’s a bit like playing with Lego as a kid. For me, that gave me a life long interest in the mechanics of the moving parts and how it goes together and works together.
That’s all lost when you only have a couple of moving parts.
Alas cars are more like appliances now, fewer people work on their own stuff, and it’s really quite difficult with modern cars and all the sensors and other electronics.
On the bright side though we don’t need to adjust the tappets at every service.

PL71 Enthusiast
PL71 Enthusiast
23 days ago
Reply to  Vetatur Fumare

I’m kinda with you. Not having an engine takes 99% of the interesting stuff out of the powertrain. No engine, no trans, in some cases not even diffs.

James Carson
James Carson
23 days ago

Yes please, never to old to learn something.

OCS-BN
OCS-BN
23 days ago

I’m an ICE design engineer and have never driven an EV. EVs just don’t do it for me. However, I’m looking forward to this. Great writing, excellent idea. Welcome!

RoRoTheGreat
RoRoTheGreat
23 days ago
Reply to  OCS-BN

If you’ve never driven an EV how do you know that it doesn’t do it for you?

FYI, this is what I tell my kid when I want her to try a new food. 😉

OCS-BN
OCS-BN
23 days ago
Reply to  RoRoTheGreat

You are absolutely right, sir. There just hasn’t been an opportunity, yet.

S Chen
S Chen
23 days ago
Reply to  OCS-BN

Maybe you know someone who can let you ride or drive it? Here in SF bay area, they are literally everywhere. On my street of SFHs, literally 50% of the homes have an EV of some sort in the garage.

Bram Oude Elberink
Bram Oude Elberink
23 days ago

What amazes me, is that there are so many different setups for an EV, and even more setups for hybrids. I always try to compare EV setups with the most simple EV-conversion of (classic) cars. The most simple EV-conversion is where you only replace the petrol engine with an electric motor. You connect one end of the clutchplate to the electric motor, there is an adapter plate between motor and gearbox and that’s it. Oh, and the petrol tank is replaced with batteries. But existing electric 12V systems stays, as does the gearbox etcetera. This type of EV I can understand from history, so with more modern EV’s I try to relate to that one to see if things make more sense.

3WiperB
3WiperB
23 days ago

Yeah, we aren’t much farther along in public knowledge. I was always amazed at the number of people who were surprised that I could run my Volt on gas, or would make that sort of comment on the rare occasion I was in a gas station. I got really good at that 60 second elevator speech that was done at the gas station pump.

Ted Fort
Ted Fort
23 days ago
Reply to  3WiperB

I drove for Uber using a GenII Prius for a while. I got good at the quick run-down of how hybrids work. I recall one conversation (that I probably had a few times.)

“So how far can this go on electricity?”

“Well, the electric motor and battery are designed more to assist the engine, so it can really only drive maybe a mile or so on electricity only.”

“ONLY A MILE? GEESH.”

“Again, it’s meant to assist. But it recharges the battery while driving, so you always have that assistance available.”

“So you’re telling me that if the battery is empty, and you run out of gas, you’re stranded?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“See? I knew EV’s were pointless!”

Last edited 23 days ago by Ted Fort
DadBod
DadBod
23 days ago
Reply to  3WiperB

To be fair, GM stepped on their collective dicks when they unveiled the Volt. I had no idea it was a hybrid until 6 months ago (from a comment on this very site!)

Mrbrown89
Mrbrown89
23 days ago

I had a similar reaction when I opened the hood of my Chevy Bolt to add windshield washer fluid for the first time. What am I looking at?

I wonder how easy is to replace things, the packaging is way different to an ICE vehicle.

Balloondoggle
Balloondoggle
23 days ago
Reply to  Mrbrown89

I came very close to adding washer fluid to the wrong reservoir once. After that I took some time to look things over. Still can’t show you the Charger vs. the Inverter, but at least I can look at it and not be frightened.

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
23 days ago

“Of course, most people have driven an EV by now.”

Only if bumper cars count.

Harvey Park
Harvey Park
23 days ago

those thick orange wires to snuggle safely in the anodes of those battery cells

Guessing you haven’t seen Jason’s Changli

ES
ES
23 days ago
Reply to  Harvey Park

Isn’t it a verb yet? “guessing you haven’t changlied?” i guess you could also have used Torch, but verbifying that name means something else, so far.

Last edited 23 days ago by ES
Here4thecars
Here4thecars
23 days ago

I love this idea, and I am looking forward to reading the series. This kind of content is exactly why I am a dues-paying member.

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
23 days ago

I never cease to be amazed at the quality of the writers this site manages to find. Very well written sir.

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