How Cars Work: A Basic Breakdown

Drivers should know how to how to buy auto insurance and how cars work. Cars that require gasoline are powered by an internal combustion engine which is set into action through many small explosions of oxygen and fuel. Electric cars, on the other hand, require not gasoline but electricity which powers a motor. Knowing how cars work can help you as a driver understand what kind of insurance coverage you need to repair or replace your vehicle.

UPDATED: May 10, 2022Fact Checked

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Sara Routhier, Managing Editor and Outreach Director, has professional experience as an educator, SEO specialist, and content marketer. She has over five years of experience in the insurance industry. As a researcher, data nerd, writer, and editor she strives to curate educational, enlightening articles that provide you with the must-know facts and best-kept secrets within the overwhelming world o...

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Written by Sara Routhier
Director of Outreach Sara Routhier

Cynthia Lanctot is an insurance professional with ten years of industry experience. Cynthia is licensed in several states, and holds an associate in claims law, as well as a bachelor’s degree in English. Cynthia’s experience includes the New England and Northeast states. She currently works as a liability claims professional and an occasional online contributor.

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Reviewed by Cynthia Lanctot
Licensed Agent Cynthia Lanctot

UPDATED: May 10, 2022

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A Concise Overview

  • Oxygen and gasoline combust to power your vehicle
  • A typical car engine operates using a four-stroke system
  • Electric cars do not have an internal combustion engine

You drive your car every day to work, to the gym, and to your favorite bookstore, but while you know that pressing unlock on your key fob will open your doors, and inserting and turning the key will cause the engine to turn over, do you actually know how your car works?

While you may not need to know everything about cars, knowing how your car operates can help you not only choose the best auto insurance coverages but also make you a more knowledgeable car owner. In short, if you want to purchase more affordable auto insurance, knowing how cars work can help you do just that.

You’ll be happy to learn that you don’t need to add a confusing how cars work book to your list the next time you visit your local library, either. Keep reading to learn how to determine where to obtain free online auto insurance quotes and to discover how cars operate so that you can gain a better understanding of the machine that you spend so much time in every day.

If you want to know how cars work, enter your ZIP code to obtain free insurance quotes and to receive lower insurance rates.

How does a car work?

Your car is able to take you to and fro because of the internal combustion engine that it contains. Known as a heat engine, your engine is able to utilize the heat of burning gasoline. It converts that heat into energy — called torque — which powers the wheels of your car and sends you on your way. Of course, similar to auto insurance rates, understanding how cars work requires a bit more detail. Let’s take a closer look at how your engine can convert heat into energy.

Car Basics for Beginners

While you won’t be able to ask your auto insurance company how cars operate, you can educate yourself to gain a better understanding of your vehicle.

If you were to closely examine your car’s engine, you would notice some items that look like cylinders within it. These cylinders actually contain your engine’s pistons which are connected to a crankshaft via rods. These rods enable the pistons to move up and down and, in turn, spin the crankshaft.

While the exact number will vary for different types of vehicles, there are usually between 2 and 12 pistons contained in an engine. You may be shocked to learn that these pistons are set into motion by tiny explosions that erupt every minute. Oxygen mixed with fuel combusts, and with this combustion comes the power stroke which pushes a piston down. The power stroke is one of four types of strokes that occur in the engine. Three additional strokes that happen in the engine include the following:

  • The intake stroke
  • The compression stroke
  • The exhaust stroke

For a vehicle that needs fuel in order to run, these four strokes work together to get your car moving. Since your car needs oxygen to burn fuel, valves are opened during the intake stroke to do just as the name implies and intake air. The valves are shut at the bottom of the stroke which paves the way for the compression stroke.

The compression stroke moves upward, and the intake charge is compressed. And as the stroke reaches its maximum height, also known as top dead center, gasoline is directly injected. As the air and fuel combine, spark plugs ignite the mixture.

This explosion pushes the piston back down into the combustion stroke which allows your wheels to move. Now, as this stroke reaches its low point, also known as bottom dead center, the exhaust valves are opened in order to release the combustion gases as the piston rises once again.

In cars that have multi-cylinder engines, the cycles of each cylinder are evenly staggered. This ensures that not all of the cylinders are experiencing combustion strokes simultaneously which keeps your engine balanced and running smoothly.

There are, of course, severaly types of engines just as there are various types of insurance companies.

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What are the different types of engines?

When shopping for a new car, you’ve most likely seen descriptions of the engine but haven’t understood what the seller was trying to convey. If a car is described as having an inline-four arrangement for cylinders, this means that the cylinders are placed in a straight line. V-6 and V-8 engines will contain two banks of inline cylinders placed in a V formation.

Now, you should also note that not all internal combustion engines operate in exactly the same manner. For instance, the Atkinson-cycle engine is a more efficient engine, but it lacks power. There are also turbocharging engines that you can purchase which force more air into your engine. This additional oxygen intake results in building a more powerful torque.

While diesel engines still operate from the same method of air and fuel combustion, spark plugs are not a necessary part of the process. Of course, if you have an all-electric car, your vehicle isn’t at all powered by an internal combustion engine.

How do all-electric cars work?

If you drive an all-electric car, you will find an electric motor under your vehicle’s hood instead of an internal combustion engine. Unlike cars that need gasoline, your automobile needs a battery pack to power its motor. The power generated by the motor is then transferred by the electric transmission and is then applied to your wheels.

Electric vehicles also use a DC/DC converter to transform high-voltage DC power from the traction battery pack to a lower-voltage, so that vehicle accessories can be powered as well. With all this power generation occurring, how does your electric car keep from overheating? Well, that’s where the thermal system comes into play.

There are different types of cooling systems for electric cars which include phase change materials, fins, air, or liquid coolant. No matter what type of system you use, the goal of maintaining an adequate temperature for the hardworking components of your vehicle remains the same.

Now, instead of taking your car to a gas station for more fuel, you will be required to plug your vehicle into an electrical outlet on a wall or into specific charging equipment. Drivers can save a significant amount of money by avoiding the gas pump, and if you have the right equipment, you can power up your car from the comfort of your home.

Many people are making the switch to all-electric cars, as these machines do not emit exhaust and therefore have no CO2 emissions. This is making electric cars all the more popular, and now, these lean, mean, green machines are available in all shapes and sizes. If you’re interested in purchasing an electric vehicle, you’ll have many great options as is evident below.

Best Electric SUVBest Electric TrucksBest Luxury Electric CarBest Electric Luxury SUV
2021 Ford Mustang Mach-E2022 Ford F-150 Lightning2022 Lucid Air2022 Audi Q4 E-Tron
2022 Volkswagen ID42021 Bollinger B22022 Tesla Model S2022 Audi Q4 Sportback E-Tron
2022 Hyundai Kona Electric2022 GMC Hummer EV2022 Mercedes-Benz EQS-Class2021 Tesla Model Y
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Cars — no matter what powers them — are all incredible machines that can get you where you need to go, and understanding how they work can make life as a driver that much easier.

How Cars Work: What You Need to Know

Similar to knowing how to purchase auto insurance, you should know how cars operate, particularly if you drive one every day. But with all the free resources you have available on the internet, you do not have to take a how cars work course to learn more about your vehicle.

If you take your automobile to the gas station, that means that there is an internal combustion engine resting underneath the hood. While that is the most common type of engine on the streets today, more and more people are interested in buying electric cars, which have no need for gasoline.

These vehicles use electricity to run and have no CO2 emissions; however, they do need a battery which can die. Now, no matter what type of fuel your car uses, you should also ensure that you have proper insurance coverage. You can shop online at any time of day to find the best coverage for your needs.

Now that you know a little more about how cars work, enter your ZIP code to begin comparing free quotes and find the best coverage for you today.

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