What Is An Electric Vehicle?

An electric vehicle is a vehicle that includes an electric motor. Okay, this article is done….

In all seriousness, there’s a lot of confusion regarding electric vehicle terminology. Furthermore, much of the public still isn’t aware of what an electric car is, and I think there’s some value in breaking down the various types of electric vehicles out there.

First of all, let me state the obvious but very often overlooked: there are many types of vehicles beyond cars. Many people talk and write about “electric vehicles” as if the term is synonymous with “electric cars,” but electric trucks, electric buses, electric bikes, electric trains, electric trams, electric planes, electric boats, electric scooters, and even electric skateboards are all electric vehicles. So, please be careful with how you use the term.

Our focus here on EV Obsession is mostly on electric cars, so I’m going to focus most of this article on them, but there are pioneering electric planes (see the solar-powered Solar Impulse 2, for example, which is currently over the Pacific Ocean in a flight around the world), electric boats (which are much quieter and less polluting for our environment, of course), and large electric trucks (which are already a much better deal than conventional ones thanks to the financial savings that come from using a much more efficient electric motor). I won’t discuss those in detail in this article, though.

Aside from electric cars, two other categories I want to spend a little more time on are electric bikes and electric buses.

Electric Bikes

IKEA electric bike, via IKEA

There are more electric bikes in the world than electric cars, by far, which is one reason I’m a little irritated when people treat electric cars as if they are all electric vehicles. An electric bike can be pedaled like a normal bike or fly down the street with the use of an electric motor and battery. Of course, different bikes come with different battery sizes, motors, and styling — some are much more like normal bikes, while others are more like scooters.

The market for electric bicycles has certainly been growing in recent years, and Navigant Research projects that it will reach 360 million a year by 2023. That’s no small market.

There are, of course, different classes of electric bikes and different technologies and design variations to explore if you want to dig deeper, but for that, I can just direct you over to Wikipedia… as I just did.

Electric Buses

Electric bus by Proterra


Electric buses are not nearly as numerous as electric bikes or cars, but this technology is one that I’ve found quite interesting to cover. There are electric buses using very different technology approaches, and the most competitive buses are now competitive with conventional buses on a lifetime cost basis… plus don’t emit any of the harmful pollutants that conventional buses emit, and are also wonderfully quiet, cutting down on nearly ubiquitous and over-accepted noise pollution that degrades our cities.

Electric truck and bus sales are expected to increase 10 times over in the next decade, but honestly, given their benefits and cos-competitiveness even today, I expect them to take over the new bus market within the coming decade.

BYD has sold the most electric buses worldwide, especially thanks to some huge sales in China. It now offers a couple of models, a 40-foot bus and a 60-foot bus. Successful pilot programs have been run using BYD electric buses in countries around the world, while very large orders have been made in some Chinese cities. Rather than using lithium-ion batteries common in most electric vehicles, BYD uses its own lithium-iron phosphate batteries.

Proterra, Volvo, GreenPower Motor Company, Solaris, Siemens, EMOSS, and (believe it or not) The Electric Bus Company also now offer electric buses and are looking to lead the way into an industry-wide transformation to electric power (though, that last one may surprise you with its offering).

Proterra uses lithium-titanate batteries and I think is considered the second-biggest competitor in the electric bus market. Based in the US, it has been focusing on the North American market, but is expanding fast.

Aside from buses with huge batteries, some electric buses have smaller batteries that are quickly charged several times a day at charging stations located at bus stops, while others use inductive charging (see here, here, and here) that allows them to recharge automatically as they drive or park over certain segments of the road. There is still quite a bit of experimentation going on in the electric bus sector. I’m curious to see where things shake out, but I’m convinced it is the future of transit one way or another.

Electric Cars

Tesla Green 4
Tesla Model S by Zachary Shahan | EV Obsession | CleanTechnica (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As I said, the main focus of this article is electric cars. Technically, if an electric car is a car with an electric motor, then conventional hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius are electric cars. However, there are huge differences between cars that can plug in to recharge their batteries (and can run 100% on electricity at least some of the time) and cars that you can only refuel on gasoline or diesel (like the Toyota Prius). So, when most people talk or write about electric cars, they are not including these conventional hybrids.

That basically leaves us with two main categories: fully electric cars and plug-in hybrids. There is no splitting the “fully electric cars” category, but there are various ways to split the plug-in hybrid category. Some plug-in hybrids have much larger batteries and thus run on electricity much more of the time. Some are set up such that the gasoline engine kicks in with strong acceleration or at high speeds, while others only really use it when the batteries run out. I think the most commonly used designations that go beyond “plug-in hybrid” are:

  • extended-range electric vehicles (EREV), which are mostly set up to run on electricity from batteries but can be supported by another built-in backup fuel;
  • range-extended battery-electric vehicles (BEVx), which have a range extender tagged onto a stand-alone electric powertrain.

The Chevrolet Volt is an EREV, technically, while the BMW i3 REx is a BEVx. Aside from these two, the only passenger electric vehicles that really qualify as having range extenders (rather than being more conventional plug-in hybrids) are the Cadillar ELR (an EREV based on the Volt platform), the Opel & Vauxhal Ampera (cousins to the Volt), and the Fisker Karma (now to be called the Elux Karma).

So, I think that covers most of the bases. If you are interested to learn more, I’d recommend:

1. Electric Car Answers

2. Electric Cars 2015 — Prices, Efficiency, Range, Pics, More

3. 10 Best Electric Cars

4. 10 Best Hybrid Cars

One thought on “What Is An Electric Vehicle?

  1. “The Chevrolet Volt is an EREV, technically, while the BMW i3 REx is a BEVx. These are the only two passenger electric vehicles that really qualify as having range extenders (rather than being more conventional plug-in hybrids).”

    No actually, there is the Fisker Karma and the Cadillac ELR, not to mention the Volt’s twins the Vauxhal and Opel Ampera. Categorizing thing by putting them into buckets (either this or that) may seem helpful until you realize some of them straddle multiple buckets, i. e. they can be dual or even multiple energy sources/drivetrains powered. Electric bikes are a perfect example. Trolley buses with onboard diesel generators for off-catenary system use are another.

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