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Are all electric cars automatic?

Are electric cars all automatic and do they have gearboxes? Our guide has the details.

By Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

Published: 30 August 2023

Are all electric cars automatic? The short answer is: yes. Longer answer: read on to find out everything you need to know.

Are all electric cars automatic?

Yes, as far as the driver is concerned, all electric cars are fully automatic. No electric car has a manual gearbox – you simply put the car into D for drive (or R for reverse) and press the accelerator to move.

Kia Soul EV gear selector

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Do electric cars have gears?

To get more technical, most electric cars have one gear. Petrol and diesel cars need several gears because the force needed to move them efficiently varies according to where – and how fast – you’re driving. Electric motors, however, have the oomph to move a car from standstill all the way up to motorway speeds. Most electric cars, therefore, have a single-speed gearbox simply to transfer the force from the motor to the wheels.

The exception to this is a handful of high-performance electric cars, such as the Porsche Taycan and Audi E-tron GT. These have two-speed gearboxes, with one gear for lower speeds and another for higher speeds to reduce the rotations needed in the electric motor and thus improve efficiency.

Renault Zoe

Do electric cars have a reverse gear?

Electric cars don’t have a reverse gear as such. When you select R in an electric car, it simply switches the direction that the electric motor (or motors) spins so that you move backwards.

This means that, in theory, you could go as fast in reverse as you could going forward. That’s not a great idea, which is why all electric cars have an electronic speed limiter that stops them going too quickly when reversing.

Skoda Enyaq iV gear selector

Do electric cars have an engine?

An electric car doesn’t have an engine. Instead, it uses an electric motor – or, in some cases, several electric motors – to drive the car forward.

Power for the electric motor (or motors) comes from the car’s battery pack, which is usually built into the floor of the car. You recharge the battery using a home or public charger.

Tesla Model 3

Can you get manual electric cars?

You can’t buy an electric car with a manual gearbox, and that’s simply because there’s no need for one. With the vast majority of electric cars having only one gear, you don’t need to shift, whether manually or automatically.

Search the internet and you can find a few electric cars with a manual gearbox but these are generally one-off cars built for events or races. It’s unlikely that the electric cars that you or I buy will be available with a manual gearbox any time soon.

Nissan Leaf

How do you drive an electric car?

Driving an electric car is much the same as driving a traditional petrol or diesel car with an automatic gearbox. Broadly speaking, it’s a case of pressing the ‘Power’ or ‘On’ button, then selecting ‘D’ (or ‘R’ if you want to go backwards) using the car’s drive selector. In most cases, the drive selector (which could be a lever, dial or button) is between the front seats, but in some cars it’s on the dashboard.

Volkswagen ID.3 gear selector

What’s the difference between driving an electric car and a petrol or diesel car?

The biggest difference between driving most petrol or diesel cars and driving an electric car (and many hybrid cars) is something called ‘regenerative braking’. It means that when you lift your foot off the accelerator the electric motor (or motors) spins backwards to both slow the car and generate power that can be fed back into the battery pack. Most electric cars give you the option of selecting how strong the regenerative braking effect is, via a switch or a dial.

Volkswagen ID.3

What is one-pedal driving in an electric car?

Many electric cars offer ‘one-pedal driving’ where the regenerative braking effect is so strong that lifting your foot off the accelerator slows you down as much as pressing on the brake pedal would. So – in theory at least – you hardly need to use the conventional brakes and can slow the car using just the one pedal. The brake pedal is still there, of course, if you need to brake more strongly than expected or in an emergency.

Nissan Leaf

What licence do I need to drive an electric car?

If you pass your driving test in an electric car, you’ll be given a category B auto licence, which means you can drive an automatic car with a petrol or diesel engine. To drive a car with a manual gearbox, you’ll need to retake your test in a car with a suitable gearbox.

If you passed your driving test in a car with a manual gearbox, you’re free to drive any electric car.

Is an electric car more expensive to maintain?

Because there are fewer moving parts, an electric car can cost less to maintain than a traditional petrol or diesel car. A gearbox and clutch are two expensive items you don’t need to worry about in an electric car.

Nissan Leaf

Do electric cars have a Sport mode?

Many petrol and diesel cars have different modes to change the way the gears shift, or the sensitivity of the accelerator. This can make the car feel more sporty, or increase fuel-efficiency with an ‘Eco’ mode.

The same is true of many electric cars. While a Sport or Eco mode won’t affect the gearbox, it can adjust the accelerator response or the amount of brake regeneration to change the way the car feels or to extend the car’s battery range.

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