Readers might find the title to this piece confusing and slightly worrying – while an electric car might be very different to a combustion-engined car in many ways, surely driving an electric vehicle (EV) is a similar experience, not some journey into the unknown?
Well yes, it is – or at least it can be. You can quite happily live with an EV by jumping into it, pushing the start button, selecting drive (electric cars don’t have conventional gearboxes), pressing the accelerator pedal and gliding away. It’s basically just like driving any modern petrol or diesel car with an automatic gearbox.
But there are few things about driving an electric car that are a bit different from a conventional petrol or diesel car, so here are a couple of things to bear in mind.
Is this thing on?
One of the differences to get used to with an EV is that nothing seems to happen when you start it – press the power button and the dashboard screens will light up but there’s no engine sound.
Accelerate away from rest and you may hear a low whine as the car starts to move. And the noise doesn’t get significantly louder, either inside or outside so, as a result, regulations now require new EVs to emit a warning noise of some sort to alert pedestrians and cyclists who otherwise wouldn’t hear you coming.
An electric car will accelerate quite swiftly from a standstill compared to petrol and diesel cars. Electric motors generate all of their torque (pulling power) instantly, so EVs are highly responsive if you stand on the accelerator. A petrol or diesel engine, by comparison, needs to rev up to its optimal working range, which is why you are always changing gears up and down to keep it in the right zone.
An EV doesn’t have a traditional gearbox, so the more you push down on the accelerator, the faster the engine spins and the faster the wheels turn.
Drive your EV this way and you won’t have any problems – but you also won’t be getting the best from it, and you won’t be getting anywhere near the range between battery charges manufacturers quote. Yes, we all know that in the real world you are not going to achieve the miles stated in the glossy brochures before you have to plug in (just as petrol cars pretty much never get near their claimed mpg figures), but you can get a lot closer to the official numbers just by doing some simple things and changing a few ways in which you drive.
The buzzword here is regeneration (knows as regen). While it might sound like a phrase extracted from an episode of Star Trek, it’s actually a crucial part of the design of electric vehicles (and hybrids).
The clever thing about an electric motor is that it works two ways. Pass electricity through it and it will rotate to generate propulsion, which drives your wheels. But if you reverse the process, using the momentum of the moving car (kinetic energy) to turn the motor, it will generate its own electricity which is then sent to the battery.
Virtually all electric cars (and hybrids/plug-in hybrids) regenerate energy at all times when not accelerating – so whenever you lift off and coast towards the next set of traffic lights, or when you hit the brakes. How you can make use of this feature can significantly affect your range – it will only add a tiny amount of electricity each time, but add those times up and it means you have to plug in a little less frequently.
The key to maximising this regeneration is a smooth driving style. Instead of heavily accelerating and then heavily braking, you accelerate to your desired speed smoothly and then coast whenever possible, such as when descending hills. This will not only waste less electricity to start with, but will also aid the regen process to recover a bit of the electricity you’ve used. As a bonus, it’s also kinder to your car in not wearing your brakes so quickly.
Most EVs allow you to increase the amount of regeneration. Cheaper models are likely to have a simple eco or ‘regen’ button – press this and as soon as you lift off the accelerator you will feel the car slow, like you’re applying the brakes. This is caused by increased friction of the motor turning and regenerating more electricity.
Once you get used to this, you can drive the car in almost a ‘single-pedal’ manner, using regeneration to slow the car in most driving situations. You only really need to use the brakes to actually bring the car to a halt or in an emergency situation where more rapid slowing is required.
More expensive EVs have multi-level regeneration, often selected from steering wheel paddles. This enables you to set a more precise level of regeneration according to the type of roads you are driving on. While full regen (where the car slows significantly every time you lift off the accelerator) is fine around a busy town, when at speed on a motorway you don’t want to lift off the pedal and start suddenly slowing – it is better to choose a lower level that allows the car to coast and maintain a reasonable speed.
Many factors affect the usefulness of regenerative braking but the driving environment is the most significant. A couple of years ago, your author road-tested an electric Volkswagen e-Golf on two 45-minute routes, the first involving a stretch of motorway and the second the constant stop-start urban environment of Bicester. After the first, the car’s range had dropped as expected – on completing the second it actually had more indicated range than had been present when setting off, solely due to the regenerative energy produced when slowing for junctions and traffic lights.
Terms and pre-conditions
One useful way to boost your driving range in an EV is by what is called pre-conditioning.
The majority of EVs today are linked to an app you download for your smartphone and it’s worth getting to know it. It can be used for various things like loading a journey into the car’s navigation and finding out where charging stations are available, but perhaps the most useful are the various things you can set the car to do even before you get into it in the morning.
Through the app you can ‘pre-condition’ the car for your journey before you even step outside your front door. This includes heating or cooling the interior to your preferred temperature, switching on your heated seats and such, so it’s perfectly ready for you when you get in it.
While your car is plugged into a charging point in your driveway or work parking space, it means that your heater or air-con are using electricity from the mains supply rather than from your battery. That saves you using crucial battery supply to heat or cool the car once your on the move, helping to maximise your battery range.
Pre-conditioning is good for your car’s battery, too. The lithium-ion batteries used in EVs work best at an optimal temperature range, which means you usually get less driving range in the middle of winter than in the middle of summer. When you set up a pre-conditioning programme on your smartphone app, it doesn’t just warm up the cabin for your benefit but also warms up the batteries so that they’re at their ideal temperature before you start off. This gives you more range and also helps protect the battery over the longer term of your ownership.
There are a few more things to consider to make living with an EV a totally happy experience – none of these are essential but all useful.
Once you’re on the move, any electrical item activated in the car will be drawing off the battery and affecting your driving range. So turn off the heated seats as soon as you are warm enough and be sparing with the air conditioning where practical.
There are other things you can do to keep your EV’s range at its best, but they mirror what you should do in a petrol or diesel car to prevent wasting fuel, such as ensuring your tyres are at the optimum pressure, and not leaving lots of heavy items in your boot to be lugged around on every journey.
So yes, driving an electric car doesn’t have to be any different to driving any other type of vehicle – but there are a few simple things you can do to get the very best out of it.