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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OrigamiSensei
OrigamiSensei
2 months ago

I am very excited for this! A hearty welcome to DT2

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago

Just want to echo others and level-set a little bit: here in the US, a lot of people have never driven or even been in an EV*. I’m really looking forward to the deep dive, I was actually meaning to ask for the same thing on ICE, after meeting others and realizing I basically only know the things I’ve had to fix or replace.

*Does the Changli count? I feel like that’s roughly equivalent to having a cell phone on your person while you ride a bike, except the cell phone has hot wires just where you might put your legs or feet.

Rust Buckets
Rust Buckets
2 months ago
Reply to  Mechjaz

No, I’ve never driven an electric car.

You got me thinking. The newest car I’ve ever driven was 2016. The newest I’ve driven in a couple years was 2014. The newest I’ve driven in several months was 2007. The newest I own is 1995. So no electric cars.

Good to remember that when the average age of a car on the road is 12 years, there are al least as many 24 year old cars as brand new ones.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago
Reply to  Rust Buckets

This is extremely vain, but part of the reason I was shopping for a 2023 bike late last year is that once, just once, I wanted to drive/ride a model-year vehicle in at least the calendar year. A bike seemed a vastly more affordable way to indulge that vanity than a car.

Otherwise, the newest car or truck I’ve ever owned was at least five years old at purchase, and the Z4 is old enough to drink this year.

Slower Louder
Slower Louder
2 months ago

I am no kind of engineer and I’m thrilled with this idea. Thank you David T and David T!

Cautionary Tail-Light
Cautionary Tail-Light
2 months ago

your VTEC from your VAMOS

Surely you meant VANOS as in BMW’s troublesome camshaft timing system, and not what Spanish tennis players shout at themselves?

Crank Shaft
Crank Shaft
2 months ago

Indeed. I had to stop and think, WTF is VAMOS? Even Mercedes Benz never used that one. Gotta be a typo.

Alexk98
Alexk98
2 months ago

Or perhaps it was the Honda VAMOS, tied with the Daihatsu Midget II for the downright weirdest car I’ve had the pleasure of being near in person.

LH
LH
2 months ago

Really enjoyed and learned a lot from your book David. Looking forward to this series!

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
2 months ago

Ah yes, acronyms. I am a Technical Writer for, shall I say, a high-tech electronic vehicle company and compiler of the company Glossary of Acronyms and Terms. When I started I found 18 different glossaries throughout the company and morphed them into one to rule them all. We currently have more than 3000 separate items and growing. So many acronyms, so, so many acronyms . . . get used to them.

Jalop Gold
Jalop Gold
2 months ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

How do you determine what acronym gets precedent in event of dualities? Hypothetically in forum land, it may be confusing for M3 to stand for the Tesla low end sedan, or the BMW top end performance model, or SC for supercharger, or service center, or South Carolina….

BMS, blind spot monitoring or battery management system???

Knowonelse
Knowonelse
2 months ago
Reply to  Jalop Gold

We added a column to the table for that express purpose “Context” so the same acronym can have different meanings in a different context. At the moment, we have one acronym with five separate meanings. We also have another column indicating the authority (CFR, USC, ASTM, NIST, whatever) that defines the acronym as some of them are a bit odd and forestalls questions about them.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

I so badly there want there to be a VW UTI or a Chevy Suburban STD to proudly announce their Urban Transport Initiative or Standard trim package.

Mantis Toboggan, MD
Mantis Toboggan, MD
2 months ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

This is how priesthoods started.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
2 months ago

Is he keeping the table to himself and other initiates? If so, then absolutely.

Ted Fort
Ted Fort
2 months ago
Reply to  Knowonelse

I work in healthcare contracting. So. Many. Acronyms.

My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
2 months ago
Reply to  Ted Fort

I work in healthcare construction, we also have many many acronyms. Several 40″ x 32″ plan sheets worth, and a symbols sheet for each trade too.

Marty
Marty
2 months ago

This sounds like it’s going to be great!

Totally not a robot
Totally not a robot
2 months ago

Are we allowed to have two (2!) nerdy car engineers named David T around here? Isn’t that a bit like dividing by zero?

Kidding. Welcome DT, looking forward to your top-shelf technical deep-dives!

Greensoul
Greensoul
2 months ago

What? No fake intake runners molded into the plastic motor cover? Seriously, though, thanks for the break down on this cars working parts.

Last edited 2 months ago by Greensoul
Fruit Snack
Fruit Snack
2 months ago

I never knew about it before, but the ZOE was so much better looking than the Leaf it’s not even funny.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
2 months ago

I’ve helped install large transformers—and I work with 24v step-downs every day, but that’s AC: I don’t grok DC-DC converters.

I’m good with crayons—and I’ve got my dictionary: bring it!

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
2 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

It’s more or less the same thing. Most of the DC-DC converters just PWM to a lower voltage, or generate high-frequency AC then run it through a transformer then a rectifier and smoothing.

Oafer Foxache
Oafer Foxache
2 months ago

Okay, so I;ve started trying to figure things out with that lovely diagram under the heading “What we’re doing about it”

  1. Rectifier: this just fixes problems… nice!
  2. DC-DC Converter: umm… left to right DC gets converted to right to left DC? Not sure on this one
  3. Input filter: ICE engines have oil and fuel filters, so EVs should also be filtering electrons or whatever. Makes total sense!
  4. Inverter: Wow! A Jeep function?

Looking forward to the next lesson!

The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
The F--kshambolic Cretinoid Harvey Park
2 months ago
Reply to  Oafer Foxache

The inverter was actually developed for the Ford Explorer in the 1990s

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
2 months ago

With help from Firestone?

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
2 months ago

I’m a bit of a “motorhead”(yes that can be an EV term) so looking forward to these!

Detroit-Lightning
Detroit-Lightning
2 months ago

This is tremendous!

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago

So, so, so very

HERE

FOR

THIS

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
2 months ago

I’m looking highly forward to this. I have a pretty good idea of how EV’s, as well as my Volt works in general, but I’m lacking greatly in the details.

In some ways reading this started to remind me of how I came to learn about how ICEs work. Ever since I was a kid, I was into cars, mechanics, etc. However, the internet as we know it didn’t exist, they discontinued the auto-shop program at our school, and Hot Rod magazine never really seemed to explain all of the basic, intricate details. I picked up terms, shapes of things, messed with engines when I could/had to, but never really had the complete picture of exactly how the parts on an automotive ICE all worked together.

Finally, a few years later I was working through a timing-chain replacement on my ’67 Cadillac and ended up having to reset the distributer placement, turning the engine over by hand and finding top dead center on the number one piston.

I don’t know why that did it, but suddenly all of it came together in one of those sort of “eureka” moments – where the heads, pistons, valve springs, manifolds, distributer fuel pump, etc. were all located, and more importantly why they did what they did in concert. It felt like I had just thrown a bunch of puzzle pieces at a table top and they all landed and interlocked into the perfect end result at the same time.

Having some material produced by engineers for engineers on EVs should help fast-track that whole learning and incubation process. Thanks and go Autopian!

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
2 months ago

I learned about ICEs from my Dad, but it really came together when we took a trip out to Summit Racing. They had all the parts laid out to be inspected and a ton of cutaway engines on stands. That was my eureka moment.

Eggsalad
Eggsalad
2 months ago

I’ve never driven an EV, and I’ve only ever ridden in one once, as a rideshare. Near as I can tell, they work like any other car. You turn it on, select the direction in which you’d like to move, and drive.

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
2 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

I don’t know how this is possible, but in the 190 rides I’ve taken with lyft, 0 of them have been electric. I rode in and drove an ev for the first time on a test drive last weekend with a friend who’s planning on buying an ioniq 5.

It felt just like any other car except the steering wheel felt like a force feedback wheel playing gran turismo. Neither good nor bad, just different.

Space
Space
2 months ago
Reply to  Eggsalad

I never thought about it but I have never been in an EV, or PHEV. I’m not trying to avoid them it’s just never happened.
Unless a golf cart counts.

Abdominal Snoman
Abdominal Snoman
2 months ago

Really looking forward to this. What I’m most excited about is what exactly goes on between the go pedal, and different types of motors as far as what kinds of signals / current gets sent under heavy acceleration, constant speed cruising, and regeneration. Only real experience I have here is in industrial settings with variable frequency drives, and I’m sure car motors are an order of magnitude more complicated.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
2 months ago

I feel like I know how they work, as an EV-only owner and a scientist and tech geek who has done a lot of research on my own, but I’m seriously excited about this series! Getting the deets from inside the industry promises to be fascinating.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago

Outstanding, can’t wait. I feel like I just kinda understand the basics of ICEs, mostly due to my own slow motivation, so I’m excited about getting into this a little faster!

I’m really intrigued about learning about the braking connection (and yeah the HVAC one too but not as sexy) as I’m fascinated at how engineers use the nature of the new engines to increase other areas of automotive performance.

67 Oldsmobile
67 Oldsmobile
2 months ago

This is great, looking forward to reading more.

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
2 months ago

I know the clear intention of the series is to go deep on EV technology, which is a great idea. That said, I love “The Soul of a New Machine” types of articles. I hope Monsieur T slips in a few asides on the roadblocks his team faced and workarounds they used in the creation of the Zoe.

Dar Khorse
Dar Khorse
2 months ago

“The Soul of a New Machine” is one of the best books about the compu-tech industry I’ve ever read. It takes what could have been dull as dishwater material and makes it riveting.

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
2 months ago
Reply to  Dar Khorse

Thanks for the cite – just put it on my reading list!

James Davidson
James Davidson
2 months ago
Reply to  Dar Khorse

I agree! The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder is a terrific book. It’s such a great story that it won a Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction. I worked with a number of tech companies in the early 80’s and started one of my own in the mid 80’s. Everything about the story of developing a new computer rings as completely true.

James Carson
James Carson
2 months ago
Reply to  Dar Khorse

Check out “House” by Kidder. Same kind of story as “Soul” but about the triad of architect, builder and homeowner. Fabulous read.

Mechjaz
Mechjaz
2 months ago

I found out about that being a Fear Factory fan, and while I see why they co-opted the title (it’s super badass), it was not at all what I expected in the very best way. I didn’t even know the dust-jacket level description of it, I assumed it was something horrifying and dystopian, but it was an awesome and beautifully human story (and as has been pointed out, non-fiction).

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
2 months ago

Ahh this is great!

Anything clear and concise like this is a Godsend in helping people understand EVs.

I love EV’s despite them not really being “popular” in my area. As a salesguy that is also a tree hugger I feel like its my duty to get people into EVs when they make sense for them, and that takes a LOT of time and education. Stuff like this is great to have access to.

LuzifersLicht
LuzifersLicht
2 months ago

Neat! Looking forward to that series. I always enjoy the technical deep-dives and this one might be more relevant than most as electric cars are becoming an everyday technology. I try to at least have an idea of how everyday tech works, it astonishes me how people can use a fridge or microwave every day of their life and never think “heck, I wonder how this thing works”.
Also fun fact: my parents own two cars – A ZOE and a Qashqai. Sounds like they enjoy Mr.Twohig’s work.

Last edited 2 months ago by LuzifersLicht
Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
2 months ago

No offense but does the author know who his readers are here? Hasn’t the ZOE been featured here as the free car for the French, to start adapting EVs. Have not there been other stories on these cute uniquely French cars? He clearly knows an enormous amount about the ZOE but hey don’t insult us. Not really insulted

David Tracy
David Tracy
2 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

lol. David KNOWS that we diehards know the ZOE, but the layperson does not!

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
2 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Yeah tongue in cheek tried to edit but got blocked. Sorry.

Last edited 2 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
My 0.02 Cents
My 0.02 Cents
2 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Renault ZOE joke slightly related to ‘diehards’. Its tenuous link at best, but here goes.
Would you like to lease or buy that battery.

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