A record number of electric cars hit the road in the United Kingdom last month as the nation grappled with a fuel crisis that saw bowsers run dry.

More than 32,000 battery-powered cars were registered in September, and Tesla’s Model 3 was at the top of the list as the best-selling car.

While images of long queues outside service stations jump-started buyers into making the switch, the sale of electric cars in the UK can only go up.

The British government has pledged to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

It is also banning the sale of new plug-in hybrids from 2035 to push drivers into buying fully electric vehicles.

But when it comes to electric cars, do you know your BEVs from your PHEVs and HEVs?

What is an EV?

An electric vehicle (EV), also known as a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV), runs on electricity.

Instead of filling it up with petrol, you can charge an EV from a power point in the wall or at a specialty charging station.

An EV’s battery can be charged in as little as 10 minutes at a rapid charging station or in up to several hours from a standard wall socket.

EVs are easy to spot when you’re driving because they don’t have an exhaust pipe.

This is because the battery powers the car’s motor instead of an internal combustion engine.

EVs don’t emit greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change and cause less noise pollution because they are quieter.

They are also automatic — nearly all the EVs on the market don’t have a gearbox.

According to the Electric Vehicle Council, about 5,244 BEVs were sold in Australia in 2020 out of an estimated 920,000 total car sales (0.56 per cent).

A car park full of Tesla electric cars.
Electric cars don’t have an exhaust pipe. AP: Jon Super

What is a hybrid car?

A hybrid car uses both electricity and fuel to power its motor.

There are two main types of hybrids: plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and hybrid electric vehicles (HEV).

Plug-in hybrids have both a fuel tank and a rechargeable battery, which you can charge by plugging it into a power source.

A plug-in hybrid will run on electricity until its battery is nearly empty, then switch over to its internal combustion engine.

When in electric mode, a plug-in hybrid is like an EV: it won’t emit greenhouse gases and it will be quieter.

But when it switches to internal combustion mode, it will run like a traditional car.

HEVs run on both electricity and fuel but they cannot be plugged in to charge — they only have a fuel tank.

Instead, the internal combustion engine charges the HEV’s battery while the car is driving.

Both plug-in hybrids and HEVs have the ability to charge their battery as they brake, which is known as regenerative braking.

There are also mild hybrid electric vehicles (MHEVs), which use a battery to help the internal combustion engine to perform better but cannot run on electricity alone.

A car fuel door showing petrol and electric options.
Hybrid cars run on both electricity and fuel.Reuters: Chris Helgren

What is an internal combustion engine?

An internal combustion engine burns fossil fuels, like petrol or diesel, to power a car’s motor.

It mixes the fuel with air to create a contained explosion, which drives the parts of the engine that move the wheels.

This process emits greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

Internal combustion engines are used in almost every type of motorised transport — planes, trains, boats, motorbikes, buses, trucks, jet skis.

They are also found in machines like chainsaws, lawnmowers and power generators.

While internal combustion engines were crucial to technological advancements in the 19th and 20th centuries, they cause significant air and noise pollution.

A car emits exhaust fumes
Cars with an internal combustion engine emit greenhouse gases.Reuters: Fabrizio Bensch

What is a hydrogen car?

A hydrogen car, also known as a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), is a fully electric car that runs on liquid hydrogen.

From the outside it can look like a non-electric car — you fill up the fuel tank and there’s an exhaust pipe.

But inside, the hydrogen mixes with air to create electrical energy that powers the motor.

Hydrogen cars don’t emit greenhouse gases, just water vapour that comes out the exhaust.

They are also quieter because they don’t have an internal combustion engine.

Hydrogen vehicles can travel further than electric vehicles but can only fill up at refuelling stations, like a petrol or diesel vehicle.

This makes them well-suited to network transport like buses and long-haul trucks that have pre-determined distances and routes to travel.

A nozzel for hydrogen refuels a car.
A hydrogen car being refueled.AFP: Frank Hoermann