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Do EVs Have Engines?

Engine details for an electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles have become more powerful and more affordable in rapid leaps since the twilight of the last millennium. With their capabilities now meeting and surpassing their conventional counterparts, more consumers are considering EVs when shopping for cars. Those unfamiliar with EVs may have basic questions, such as wondering whether or not EVs have engines. 

The short answer is that EVs do not have an engine. Instead, they have electrical motors.

Engine versus Motor

Per Merriam-Webster, the primary definition of “engine” is “a machine for converting any of various forms of energy into mechanical force and motion”. A “motor” is “one that imparts motion”, but it can also be “any of various power units that develop energy or impart motion: such as … b: internal combustion engine, especially: a gasoline engine.” 

Delineating between engines and motors depends somewhat on the target audience. The overlapping definitions and common usage mean that the difference between the two is not really going to impact anyone informally discussing EVs or shopping for an electric vehicle. Language is all about conveying meaning and saying “I want a car with two electric engines” is an understandable phrase.

You might get funny looks from swapping them around in specific turns of phrase, like if you say “start your motors” instead of “start your engines”, and they do have slightly different definitions and usage, especially in technical fields like automotive engineering.

From an electrical engineering standpoint, a motor generator is a device that either transforms electrical power into physical energy or transforms physical energy into electrical power. Automotive companies use the term “engine” for conventional and diesel powertrains, and they use the term “motor” for electrical powertrains.

The lines are harder to differentiate when used in applications like diesel-electric trains, which burn diesel in an engine to power an alternator that drives an electric motor.

How many engines can an EV have?

Close up photo of a EV car engine motor model 500e.

For a technical answer, a plug-in hybrid EV can have one combustion engine that it uses for higher horsepower and torque.  

To answer the spirit of the question, electric vehicle motors are much smaller than traditional combustion engines, and they don’t have nearly as many moving parts. That gives engineers more flexibility in where and how they install the motors.

Basic electric vehicles will have a single electric motor that supplies power to one set of wheels. All-wheel drive EVs have at least one motor on both the front and the rear axles, as seen on high-performance EVs like the Porsche Taycan Turbo S. Some have additional motors that provide extra power, like the Lucid Air Sapphire and Tesla Model S Plaid with three motors. More companies are looking into producing EVs with four motors, including Porsche and BMW.

How much power does an electric motor produce?

Close up photo of an electric motor system of an Eco car engine.

Like conventional engines, the amount of power that an EV has under the hood depends on the quality of the motor. Unlike conventional engines, it also depends somewhat on the quantity.

At the very low end, electrically driven carts have the horsepower in the single digits. Their low performance is part of the reason that EVs started with a poor performance reputation, but they aren’t close to the same league as even the slowest of the true EVs.

For road-worthy EVs, there are inexpensive models like the 2023 Nisan Leaf. Its 110kW AC motor has an output of 147 hp and 236 lb-ft of torque. It’s not that slow off the line, either, hitting 60 mph around 7 seconds from pressing the pedal.

EVs in the upper spectrum of performance are becoming strong competitors against conventional premium sports cars. Tesla’s Model S Plaid has a four-digit horsepower rating and 905 lb-ft of torque, and it hits 60 mph in just 2 seconds. Lucid Air’s Grand Touring has a much lower hp at 536, but it’s still blindingly fast with a 2.6-second 0-to-60 time. The upcoming Sapphire reportedly will have more than 1,200 hp and be even faster than the Plaid. 

Can electric motors provide enough power to tow heavy loads?

Close up photo of a mechanic checking an electric motor of his EV for maintenance,

Electric motors can absolutely provide the necessary torque to move big objects. EVs have clawed their way out of their reputation deficit in the daily driver and sports car markets, but they have also been looking for a foothold in the pickup and SUV markets

The Ford F-150 Lightning has a maximum towing capacity of 10,0000 pounds with all the right equipment, and a Ram 1500 has a 12,750 pound towing capacity with the same considerations. Atlis, a newcomer to the automobile manufacturing game, is releasing its XT pickup truck with a suggested maximum towing capacity of 35,000 pounds. Both the XT and the F-150 Lightning are a little more expensive than the Ram 1500, but it’s close enough that the money saved on gas will make up for the monthly payment difference.