What are the key differences between an electric vehicle (EV) and an internal combustion engine vehicle (ICE)? Here’s what you need to know.

How ICEs and EVs work

You’re a fleet professional, so you know how combustion-engine vehicles work. A gas-powered engine takes fuel into its cylinders, and then the spark plugs create a small explosion to move the pistons. This is how gasoline fuel is converted into the kinetic energy that propels a traditional vehicle forward.

In an electric vehicle, that energy isn’t made by the vehicle. It is made elsewhere by a power plant, a solar panel, or some other form of energy collection, and it’s stored in the car’s onboard battery through charging. This stored energy is then pushed to the wheels on demand — in other words, when the driver steps on the throttle — by feeding the battery’s energy through one or more electric motors.

Right away, this brings one of the main benefits of EVs into focus. Internal combustion engines have a lot of moving parts — about 2,000 — including many that need to be maintained and eventually replaced. EV motors, however, have only a fraction of the moving parts — around 20 — which makes EVs more reliable and easier to maintain. In fact an EV’s entire powertrain is simplified compared to that of a combustion vehicle, largely due to the EV’s direct-drive transmission.

In EVs, software is a much more important component: How the car accelerates, brakes, and stores and recovers energy are all factors decided by computers.

Over the Air (OTA) updates

Some EV makers send firmware updates directly to vehicles without any dealership visits or input needed by the owner. Firmware is the software that manages all vehicular and motor operations, so these OTA updates can add new functionality to the drivetrain – not just to the screen user interface. Tesla drivers have left their cars parked in their driveways overnight and woken up to more horsepower or extended range the next morning.1

The key differences of driving an electric vehicle

So, what are the differences between driving an EV versus a combustion vehicle?

Regenerative braking

In an EV, the braking system can recover kinetic energy and store it in the battery for later use. This maximizes the vehicle’s range, which can mean charging less often. It’s like putting a small amount of gas back in the tank every time you come to a stop or slow down.

Instant torque

Combustion vehicles need to reach the right number of engine revolutions per minute before its full torque output becomes available. Electric vehicles produce full torque from a complete stop. This makes for faster acceleration, even while already in motion.2

Lower maintenance costs

Because there are fewer parts to break and no oil changes are needed, EVs can cost up to 40 per cent less to maintain than ICE vehicles, according to a study3 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

For more on this topic, see Lesson 2: Understanding EV lifecycle costs

Quieter operation

Diesel users will appreciate this one: EVs are very quiet compared to legacy vehicles. We’ve heard from one EV fleet operator whose clients think they are calling into meetings from the office rather than the road!

Lower centre of gravity

EV batteries are usually found beneath the cabin floor. This creates a very low centre of gravity, making EVs more stable in corners and less likely to roll over than ICE vehicles.

Refuelling while parked

Instead of stopping at fuel stations, charging for most fleet users happens at home or in warehouses or depots overnight. This doesn’t only save on energy costs: it saves time, too.

Haul plywood to a worksite during the week, and firewood to the campsite on the weekend. The 2022 Ford F-150 Lightning comes with ample frunk space to go with its rear cargo bed. Photo: Ford

More storage

Because there’s no engine to take up space, many EVs use the extra space to add cargo capacity. For example, a Tesla Model Y has a 117-litre cargo area — playfully called a ‘frunk,’ or a front-trunk — under the hood. The F150 Lightning has a massive frunk for extra cargo.

On-board generator

Some EVs allow their battery’s power output to be used for other purposes such as powering tools or electronics. It’s like having a generator on wheels.

“EVs have fewer moving parts and fluids that require maintenance – no engine oil, spark plugs, drive belts, (or) oxygen sensors, to name basic examples.”

— Joe Comacchio, Vehicle Line Marketing Manager at Ford of Canada

EVs make zero tailpipe emissions

Of course, one of the most important differences is that engine combustion pollutes the air with carbon compounds, which contribute to climate change, and toxic chemical compounds, which contribute to cancer, asthma, dementia and other illnesses.

EVs don’t emit any exhaust: the energy goes straight from the battery to the motors. You can stand in the middle of a warehouse full of running EVs and breathe the air with no worries at all. And because the Canadian power grid is one of the world’s cleanest, more than 80 per cent of the energy powering our vehicles is from non-emitting sources4 as well.

In the next section, you’ll learn some of the new terms associated with electric vehicles and their components.

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