Rachael Brennan has been working in the insurance industry since 2006 when she began working as a licensed insurance representative for 21st Century Insurance, during which time she earned her Property and Casualty license in all 50 states. After several years she expanded her insurance expertise, earning her license in Health and AD&D insurance as well. She has worked for small health insuran...

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Chris Harrigan has an economic degree from Limestone College and an MBA from Clemson University. He previously managed auto insurance claims for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Currently, he is using his business and insurance expertise to provide insurance data analysis and visualizations to enhance the user experience.

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Reviewed by Chris Harrigan
Former Auto Insurance Claims Manager Chris Harrigan

UPDATED: Mar 31, 2022

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Key Takeaways

  • A series of systems work together to make cars run
  • Each system performs a specific function and is essential for the car to move
  • You must regularly maintain your vehicle’s systems to keep it working correctly

You rely on your car every day. It takes you to and from the office, carries your children to school, and gives you the freedom to explore the world around you. Your vehicle may be an essential part of your life, but how much do you know about how cars work?

Much like your body, automobiles depend on the cooperation of independent systems to run. The engine powers the vehicle, but it couldn’t function without the electrical and cooling systems. Your car wouldn’t stop without the braking system, and it wouldn’t move without the drivetrain.

Today we’re going to explore the technological and mechanical systems that power your vehicle, so you can better understand how cars work.

How Cars Work: The Systems

Cars are composed of a series of systems that perform specific roles in running the vehicle. These systems vary by make and model, but most modern vehicles include some variations.

All-electric vehicles are an exception to some of these systems, and we will look at these cars individually as well.

How Cars Work: The Engine

Internal combustion engines are the power source for most modern cars. Internal combustion engines rely on fossil fuels for power and produce energy by burning the material inside the motor.

There are pistons inside the engine. Pistons sit in cylindrical chambers and are propelled forward by the combustion of a fuel source like gasoline. The fuel system carries gas to the engine, where spark plugs ignite the fuel. The resulting explosion drives the pistons forward and creates the energy that powers your vehicle. 

The pistons are attached to rods that move the crankshaft, transferring power to the transmission.

How Cars Work: The Drivetrain

The transmission controls what gear your car is in and how fast it moves. Most modern cars have an automatic transmission, which switches gears without driver input. Manual transmissions require you to press a clutch and change gears yourself using a lever or knob. 

Your engine generates power through internal combustion. The driveshaft takes this power to your wheels. Rear-wheel drive vehicles have a long driveshaft that carries power to the rear axles. Front-wheel drive cars use constant velocity (CV) axles, also known as half axles, to take power from the transmission to the front wheels. 

How Cars Work: The Steering System

Your car’s steering system controls the front wheels. Most modern vehicles have power steering, a hydraulic system that makes it easier to turn your car’s wheels. 

There are many steering systems, but one of the most common in modern cars is the rack and pinion system. A rack and pinion system works by converting your steering wheel’s motion into the side-to-side movement necessary to turn your wheels.

How Cars Work: The Electrical System

Your car’s electrical system is very similar to your body’s nervous system. The vehicle’s computer or engine control unit (ECU) delivers signals to different car parts.

Electrical signals are sent all over the car. Your car’s electrical system controls individual elements of your vehicle, such as your lights, turn signals, and ignition. The system is composed of a battery and wire harness. The harness runs the length of your car and connects to nearly every component.

How Cars Work: The Cooling System

Internal combustion creates a lot of heat inside your car’s engine. Too much heat can damage the technology inside your vehicle. The cooling system works to combat this issue by regulating the temperature of your car’s engine.

Cooling systems usually use a mixture of water and chemicals. A water pump forces this solution into spaces between the engine’s cylinders to cool it down. The liquid then runs through the radiator, which re-cools it.

How Cars Work: The Lubrication System

Cars consist of many metal parts that constantly move past each other, resulting in friction and heat. Your vehicle uses oil to lubricate these moving parts and keep the temperature from getting too hot. 

The lubrication system consists of a storage tank, oil filter, and pump. The oil is carried around your engine and removes debris and dirt that accumulates in your car’s motor. 

How Cars Work: The Brake System

Your car’s brake system is essential. Brakes work by creating friction to slow the wheels of your vehicle.

Many modern vehicles have disc brakes. There is a wheel hub at the end of each of your car’s axles. Attached to this wheel hub is a rotor. Rotors are circular discs that have calipers and brake pads attached to them. When you press your brake pedal, these calipers tighten. The tightening caliper squeezes the rotor between the brake pads, creating friction and slowing your vehicle’s wheels.

Drum brakes are commonly found on older vehicles and the rear axles of some newer cars. This brake system has a brake cylinder, which expands with fluid when you press the pedal. When the cylinder expands, it pushes curved brake shoes out against the metal casing, or drum, resulting in friction that slows the vehicle.

How Cars Work: The Fuel and Exhaust System

Fuel is necessary to power your car’s engine. The fuel delivery system consists of a storage tank, a fuel pump, fuel filters, and transport lines that carry the fuel to your engine.

Many modern cars have fuel-injected engines. These engines are fitted with fuel injectors that allow a precise amount of fuel into the cylinders. Fuel-injected engines are more efficient and climate-friendly than older carburetor engines.

The exhaust system filters some of the most harmful toxins from your car’s waste products. These systems are usually comprised of exhaust pipes and mufflers, which dampen the noise produced by your vehicle. 

Most modern vehicles have catalytic converters. These are special filters designed to convert the most harmful fumes into carbon dioxide and water. 

How Cars Work: Suspension

Your vehicle’s suspension is what allows you to drive across a variety of terrain and surfaces. It supports your car’s weight and is composed of axles, springs, wheels, and tires.

Your vehicle’s suspension keeps you from feeling every bump, and it protects your vehicle from damage by cushioning the sensitive and fragile parts. 

Springs allow your car to absorb shock and move up and down on its own, and tires can provide a smoother ride and help your vehicle to grip the road.

Electric Vehicles

All-electric vehicles have many of the same systems as cars powered by internal combustion engines. The critical difference is that electricity rather than fossil fuels powers the systems. 

An electric traction motor uses power stored in a battery pack to turn the wheels of an all-electric car. 

Electric vehicles still require cooling, brake, and suspension systems. 

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Maintaining and Protecting Your Car

Your car’s systems require maintenance and upkeep. It’s crucial that you routinely do a few basic things to ensure that your vehicle continues to run correctly.

How Cars Work: Maintenance

One of the simplest and most critical things you can do for your car is regularly changing the oil. An excellent general rule is to change your oil every 3,000-5,000 miles. 

Your car’s brakes need to be changed every 10,000-20,000 miles to remain safe. 

It’s essential to monitor the fluid levels under your hood. Many mechanic shops will even fill your car’s fluid reservoirs for free. 

Visually inspecting your car’s belts and hoses is quick and easy, and you can check for cracks or dry-rot yourself without any tools. 

Car Insurance

Car insurance is an excellent way to protect the investment you put into your vehicle. Most places in the United States legally require a minimum level of liability car insurance.

The top car insurance companies provide a wide range of coverage options and practical benefits to safeguard your assets.

How Cars Work: Systems in Harmony

A car can only run correctly when all its systems are in good working condition. If one of these systems or components fails, the entire vehicle could malfunction.

Regular maintenance and upkeep are essential to your vehicle’s health. Insuring your car with an auto coverage plan is one of the best ways you can protect your investment from catastrophic damage or loss. 

Now that you know how cars work, don’t forget to protect your vehicle by applying this knowledge. Remember the importance of routine maintenance and quality car insurance so that you can safeguard the car on which you and your family depend.