Electric Cars and Hybrid Cars

The ultimate beginner’s guide to electric and hybrid cars

Electric vehicle charging with an ev rapid charger

Each year, electric vehicle sales grow. In 2018, sales of new electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles doubled. 5,000 have been sold each month in 2019 alone, with 219,000 in the UK in total. So it’s safe to say that the electric car revolution is here to stay. 

But when we asked our Members what they thought, 50% agreed that they find the whole subject of electric vehicle charging confusing. [1] 

That’s why we’re here to answer all your questions about electric vehicles. Read on to understand everything from how they work to how to charge them.

In this article:

What are electric vehicles?

Electric vehicles (EVs) power their wheels either partially or entirely through electricity. They’re also known as alternative fuel vehicles.

They use either an electric motor by itself, or an electric motor together with a petrol or diesel engine.

EVs help to reduce the amount of carbon emissions linked to climate change that road traffic produces. In fact, cars powered entirely by electric batteries don't produce any exhaust emissions while they drive.

That's why the government and car manufacturers are pushing EVs in order to meet their environmental targets.

How do electric vehicles work?

Electric vehicles work by having a traction battery pack (or stack) which powers an electric motor. The electric motor(s) usually drive one axle – either front- or rear- wheel drive. But some models add a motor to the other axle or even have a motor on each wheel, for 4-wheel drive.

There is also a controller which controls how much power is sent to the motor when you put your foot down, which helps you manage your speed.

The battery pack(s) can be recharged by plugging into an electric power source or through energy generated when driving, depending on the type of electric car or vehicle you have.

Back to top


electric car charging point


What’s the difference between a battery electric car and a hybrid car?

You might have heard people ask "What's the different between electric and hybrid cars?". In fact, hybrid cars are electric - they're both types of electric vehicle. What we should ask is, "What's the difference between an all-electric car and a hybrid car?".

An all-electric car, or zero-emission car, is powered entirely by electricity and has 1 or more electric motor. A hybrid car has both an electric motor and a conventional petrol or diesel engine.

Here’s a more in-depth look at both types of vehicles:

1. Zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)

ZEVs don't have a combustion engine at all and their wheels are powered by electric motor(s) all the time. There are 2 types. The main difference between them is where the electricity to power the motor(s) comes from.

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) - These are the most common type of ZEV. They have a large 'traction battery' that you have to charge by plugging into an external source. They're also capable of generating some electricity through braking.
  • Fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) - These are less common and use hydrogen. The hydrogen combines with oxygen from the air in a fuel cell which produces electricity to power the car.

Popular models of BEVs are:

  • Nissan Leaf
  • Kia e-Niro
  • Hyundai Kona
  • VW e-Golf
  • Tesla Model 3
  • Audi e-tron
  • Jaguar I-Pace

Drive an electric? We cover breakdowns in electric cars too.
Read more >

2. Hybrid electric vehicles

Hybrid cars work by having both a battery-powered electric motor and a petrol or diesel internal combustion engine.

Most will be able to drive with zero-emissions (electric only), but how far depends on the size of the battery and whether you can plug-in to recharge. To get the best out of a hybrid, you'd ideally use electric for short journeys or when you're driving in urban areas. You'd rely on the combustion engine for longer journeys or if the battery's low on charge.

There are 4 main types:

  • Mild hybrid electric vehicle - These are sometimes called electrified vehicles or Battery Assisted Hybrid Vehicles. They use an electric motor and battery to assist the combustion engine but have no zero-emission (electric only) capability.
  • Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) - There are different types of HEVs – series and parallel. They're all capable of some zero-emission (electric only) driving, and many qualify as ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs). You can't charge HEV batteries externally. Instead, they rely on electricity generated by braking, cruising and the petrol or diesel engine.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) - These have bigger batteries and can be plugged in to charge externally. PHEVs offer a longer, more practical zero-emissions (electric-only) range than HEVs. Depending on your lifestyle, you might find that you only use the combustion engine for occasional longer journeys.
  • Range-extended electric vehicles (REEVs) - The wheels are driven directly by electric motors and the battery can be charged by plugging in. But REEVs also have a small combustion engine. It runs a generator that produces electricity, so you can drive longer journeys without having to plug-in. Like HEVs and PHEVs, REEVs can be driven in 'electric only' mode.

Popular models of PHEVs are:

  • Mitsubishi Outlander
  • BMW 330e
  • Kia Nero
  • Hyundai Iqoniq
  • Toyota Prius

Back to top

woman plugging in electric car to charge

Are electric cars good for the environment?

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles could slash carbon emissions from transport. In turn, that'll help the government hit their lower carbon dioxide (CO2) targets. When driven on electricity only, they help reduce nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other street-level pollution too.

Battery electric vehicles produce even less CO2. They emit none when they drive (which is why they're called "zero-emission vehicles"). But we do need to take into account manufacturing the batteries and producing the electricity that charges them.

A common question is: are electric cars worse for the environment? The answer is “no”, and here’s why.

Do electric cars produce fewer emissions?

BloombergNEF found that battery-powered cars create 40% less CO2 than petrol engines. Their study even considered manufacturing and assumed the electricity used to charge the cars came from coal.

That makes electric cars more eco-friendly than traditional cars. And it’s even better for the environment if we charge cars using renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, instead of fossil fuels.

In fact, the benefit of switching to electric cars will be bigger in the UK than in many other countries. That's because we already produce a lot of our electricity through renewable sources.

Will electric cars stop transport pollution?

There’s more to think about than just exhaust fumes. Pollution also comes from tiny particles of brake dust, tyre and road surface released by wear and tear, as reported by the BBC.

The government’s Air Quality Expert Group warned that this makes up over half of all the pollution from road transport.

When it comes to pollution from tyre and road wear, electric vehicles are similar to traditional petrol or diesel ones. But pollution from brake dust is much lower because of the way EVs work.

They use regenerative braking to recharge their batteries. When you take your foot off the accelerator, the electric motor(s) act as generators turned by the road wheels. The generator turns mechanical energy into electrical energy and in doing so, slows the vehicle down. You'll find that you don't need to use the brakes as much, especially in stop-start city driving.

Electric vehicles are necessary for the government to reach zero emissions. But there are other ways to make travel greener too.

Back to top

What’s the range of an electric car?

Wondering how far you can drive on a single charge? You’re not alone. 33% of people we asked said they would only buy an electric car if it could cover more than 250 miles on 1 charge. [2]

But the reality may surprise you. 95% of car journeys are under 25 miles, so you might not need a long range.[3] Plus, the trend for new cars is to have bigger batteries and longer ranges. A realistic range of around 200 miles between charges isn't unusual now.

Here are the official ranges of popular electric cars:

Car model Official range
Tesla Model S Long Range  375 miles
Kia eNiro 282 miles
Hyundai Kona Electric 279 miles
Renault Zoe 186 miles
Nissan Leaf 168 miles

What’s the range of a hybrid car?

PHEVs currently have an electric (zero-emissions) range of up to around 30 miles but this is expected to rise over the next few years. Remember that they also have a petrol or diesel engine too, so range is effectively unlimited – assuming you can find a fuel station.

That means PHEVs are likely to suit lifestyles involving a mix of short and longer journeys.

Back to top

electric vehicle charging point

How do I charge an electric car?

We know a lot of people worry that charging an electric car might be difficult and inconvenient. When we asked our Members, we found:

  • 77% agreed they’d like a standard way to access public charging points.
  • 75% agreed that all new homes should have chargepoints. [4]

But these worries may be unfounded. According to Zap Map, the UK has almost 9,000 charging locations with over 24,000 chargepoints. In fact, there are more charging stations than petrol stations nationwide.

The government is set to introduce new rules that require all new build homes to have chargepoints.

Charging at home

Around 80% of charging happens at home. It’s the cheapest and most convenient way of charging if you’ve got access to off-street parking and power. Here’s how you can do it:

  • You can charge most electric cars from a standard 13-amp socket (but it’ll be very slow).
  • Apply for a grant to install a chargepoint outside your house. (The Government’s Electric Vehicle Homecharge Scheme covers up to 75% of the cost.)
  • A fast charger (7kw) like a BP Chargemaster Homecharge unit provides quick charging at home. A 7kw fast charger will charge a 30kwh battery in around 3-5 hours.
  • Some units have smart charging options that save money by charging at cheaper times of the day. (And it's expected that all new installations will have to be 'smart' from 2020.)

Charging at work

Many workplaces help employees switch to greener driving. The Workplace Charging Scheme can help with up-front costs, so speak to your HR department to get the ball rolling.

Charging on the road

You’ll find plenty of car charging points when you’re on the move. But different providers may have different payment methods, like an app, pre-paid card or fob. However, the Government has called for all new rapid chargepoints to accept debit and credit cards by spring 2020.

On the road, you’ll come across a mixture of chargers:

  • Rapid chargers (>50kw) can charge compatible batteries to 80% full in around 30 minutes. Rapid chargers all have the charging cable tethered to the charger. They can be found in service stations and motorway service areas.
  • Fast chargers (7kw or 22kw) take between 1 and 5 hours to charge a compatible EV, depending on the size of the battery and speed of the charger. They're sometimes called 'destination chargers' because they're found in places like car parks, shopping centres and tourist destinations where you'd normally leave your car for an hour or more.
  • Slow chargers (3kw or 6kw) have been installed in many homes and workplaces but charging can take up to 12 hours.

The number of charging points is going to increase over the next few years. You’ll see more rapid chargers at motorway service areas and petrol stations, more charging spaces in car parks, and extra on-street chargepoints in residential areas, which might be built into lampposts.

Charging abroad

Buying an electric car needn’t change your holiday plans. You’ll find car charging in Europe is a doddle – though you might need a wallet full of cards/fobs or a phone full of apps.

With more than 150,000 chargepoints across Europe, you can still drive to France – or further – in your own car.

Back to top

lady with BP Chargemaster point

What's the cost of charging electric cars?

How much it costs to charge your hybrid or BEV depends on a few different factors. The energy tariff, the location of the charging point and the size of your car's battery will all have an impact.

Charging at home will usually be the cheapest option (unless your employer lets you plug-in for free). Off-peak energy prices can be as little as 12p per kWh. Rapid chargers at motorway service stations are some of the most expensive chargepoints, averaging around 35p per kWh.

You can calculate the cost of charging your car using this formula:

Size of battery (kWh) x Electricity cost of your supplier (pence per kilowatt hour) = Cost to charge an electric car

Here are the estimated costs to charge some popular EVs at home, based on the national average energy tariff of 14p per kWh:

Model Battery size Cost to fully charge
Tesla Model S 100 kWh £14.00
Renault Zoe 40 kWh £5.60
Nissan Leaf 40 kWh £5.60
Volkswagen e-Golf 35.8 kWh £5.01
Ford Focus Electric 33.5 kWh £4.69

Back to top

Should I buy an electric car?

There's a lot of things to consider when buying an electric car, but we think it’s a good idea. The AA's President, Edmund King, is keen for more people to get on board.

We want to help drivers understand the benefits of low cost, zero-emission driving and show them that EVs are already a practical, accessible and affordable alternative to traditional petrol or diesel cars.”

Edmund King OBE, AA President

Here’s why an electric car could be a good choice:

  • It can cost as little as 2p per mile to power an EV.
  • BEV drivers pay no vehicle excise duty (VED), although cars over £40,000 will have to pay a surcharge.
  • BEVs aren’t subject to the Congestion Charge in London.
  • BEVs are better for the environment - they produce zero exhaust emissions as you drive.
  • Many plug-in hybrids cost about the same as the equivalent diesel car.
  • Government grants are available for up to £4,500 off the list price of a new BEV.
  • Fleet drivers also profit from Benefit in Kind (BIK) savings.
  • Lots of EV cars come with a battery warranty of around 8 years - though batteries should remain reliable long past that.

If you do buy one, rest assured that we'll still cover you for electric car insurance and electric car breakdown cover.

electric car charging stations

Do EVs cost less in emissions charges and taxes?

Some, but not all, HEVs and PHEVs are ultra low emission vehicles (ULEV). To be considered a ULEV, the vehicle must produce equal to or less than 75g/km of CO2. 

Whether you have to pay emissions charges or are eligible for tax exemptions will depend on how much CO2 your car produces in official tests.

Clean Air Zones and Ultra Low Emission Zones

Electric vehicles will all meet the minimum requirements of Euro 4 petrol and Euro 6 diesel for CAZ and London's ULEZ. These minimums are based on the Euro emissions standards.

London Congestion Charge

As far as the London congestion charge is concerned: only vehicles that meet the Euro 6 standard (petrol and diesel), emit no more than 75g/km of Co2 and have a minimum 20 mile zero emission capable range will qualify for the 100% cleaner vehicle discount.

Taxes and Benefit in Kind

From April 2020, ULEVs with CO2 emissions below 50g/km and used as company cars will be taxed according to their electric (zero emissions) range.

The taxable 'benefit in kind' will be highest for vehicles with less than 30 miles' electric range, at 14% of the purchase price.  It'll be lowest for vehicles with an electric range over 130 miles, at only 2%.

For Zero Emission Vehicles (BEVs or FCEVs), it'll only be 1% in 2020/21.

Back to top

What's the future of electric cars?

We’re going to see more and more electric cars in the future. Here’s how things could change:

  • By 2025, more car brands will bring out EV models including Audi, Volkswagen, Nissan, Mini, Toyota and Volvo.
  • EVs will become cheaper than petrol or diesel cars by 2022.
  • Batteries will become more powerful and quicker to charge in future.
  • There’s a lot of money being invested in electric vehicles. That means the technology will only get better and cheaper. So even if you’re don’t have one yet, there’s a good chance your next car will be electric.

Back to top

Published: 12:10, 12 Aug 2019 | Updated: 16:48, 12 Aug 2019

[1] AA Populus March 2019
[2] AA Populus, March 2019
[3] Government's National Travel Survey (NTS0308) 
[4] AA Populus August 2018