E is for electric vehicles and also for excitement, two words you rarely see in the same sentence. But change is afoot because E is also the designation for a Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) motorsport formula that’s fast catching the attention of even the most ardent petrol heads – not to mention some of the world’s biggest (and hence most influential) car makers. Now all that’s needed is for the public at large to take heed as well.
Electric vehicles feature some impressive technology but suffer from an image problem that’s proving to be a drag on popularity. Sales of EVs (cars driven by one or more electric motors powered by batteries recharged from an external electricity supply) are tiny compared to consumption of conventional autos. Although over a million EVs have been sold since 2008, the entire fleet makes up just 0.1 percent of global vehicle numbers.
There’s little to get the heart racing among the top sellers. Between them, GM’s Chevy Volt, Nissan’s Leaf, Tesla’s Model S, and the plug-in version of Toyota’s Prius make up 80 percent of EV sales; yet, bar the upmarket (and very expensive) Tesla, each barely raises a second glance as they cruise past.
A staid image isn’t the only reason for the slow uptake in zero-emission cars. Apart from an eye-watering ticket even for mid-range electric sedans, commuters used to 800 km (500 mile) range between visits to the gas station find the prospect of a vehicle that offers at best 25 per cent of that, with little or no opportunities to recharge while away from home, can induce the jitters. While that fear is perhaps unjustified––a study by Columbia University concluded that just one per cent of all single-trip journeys undertaken in the U.S. were over 110 km (70 miles), well within the range of a fully charged EV––it stops consumers parting with their dollars.
Formula E, apart from introducing an interesting variation to the established motorsport scene, is designed to stimulate consumer interest in EVs by showing that electric power can be sexy. Perhaps more importantly, the series aims to provide a test bed for battery, power management, motor and drivetrain technology that will both eliminate range anxiety and push down the cost of a road-going EV.
NASCAR Formula E it’s not; the cars don’t look, move or bellow like the 5.7 liter V8, 588 kW (800 bhp) monsters battling it out at speeds up to 322 km/h (200 mph) on the ovals of the popular U.S. motorsport series. But critics of Formula E––who say they prefer the noise, vibration and outright speed that’s the trademark of conventional racers––would do well to remember that NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) traces its origins to bootleggers running moonshine during Prohibition. And those drivers favored small, light vehicles with good handling over raw power in order to better outrun unwieldy police vehicles over twisty Appalachian back roads.
In keeping with those stock car pioneers, Formula E racers weigh little and are streamlined and lithe, all the better to negotiate the tight street circuits with plenty of curves and short straights preferred by the organizers. That’s not to say the cars are without an impressive turn of speed from their 28-kWh Li-ion battery pack allied to a 200 kW (270 bhp) motor. 0-to-100 km/h (0-to-62 mph) is dispatched in three seconds and top speed is 245 km/h (150 mph). And the drivers are consummate professionals who have graced Formula 1, IndyCar and Le Mans.
The Formula E recipe seems to be working. Season one was won by Nelson Piquet Jr. at the final race of the season in London during June, 2015. That compelling contest typified a season of spectacular thrills and quite a few spills. British entrepreneur Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Racing Formula E team, claims the sport will have a larger audience than Formula 1 in “four to five years”. That might be a little optimistic considering the top Formula’s 66-year history, but Formula E is building a loyal fan base. For example, 1.18 million Britons tuned in to the London ePrix at the end of season one and 60,000 fans watched the live U.S. coverage of the Putrajaya ePrix in Malaysia (the second race of season two) even though it was shown in an early morning slot.
Mouser Electronics and partner Molex––one of the world’s major vendors of connectors and interconnect products––are fans of the sport too. Piquet Jr.’s winning car was backed by the companies and this year both have continued their sponsorship by backing the Dragon Racing team (owned by Jay Penske - who is also known to motorsport fans as a co-owner of an IndyCar Series racing outfit).
Season two of Formula E offers an even higher level of competition and the promise of accelerated development as the FIA loosens restrictions on drivetrain development. The teams are free to come up with their own inverter, engine and gearbox designs to extract the best performance out of the standardized Williams Advanced Engineering 28-kWh power pack.
Support from key sponsors such as Mouser and Molex, plus the backing of car manufacturers like Audi and Renault is underwriting the health of Formula E. (As the automotive industry’s marketing men know only too well, a carmaker’s association with a winning team can be a compelling incentive for buyers to part with their cash.) And its green credential might make Formula E sustainable in more ways than one. What’s more certain is that the white heat of motorsport competition is already boosting drivetrain technology; participating teams arrived in Beijing for the first race of season two with no less than eight different engineering solutions.
Unlike Formula 1, where esoteric engineering advances can take many years to filter down to road cars, Formula E’s winning technologies are destined to quickly make their way into road-going EVs due to the relative immaturity of the sector. That’ll help to enhance the appeal and, according to some analysts, boost the global market share of zero-emission vehicles to 50 per cent by 2040.
Steven Keeping gained a BEng (Hons.) degree at Brighton University, U.K., before working in the electronics divisions of Eurotherm and BOC for seven years. He then joined Electronic Production magazine and subsequently spent 13 years in senior editorial and publishing roles on electronics manufacturing, test, and design titles including What’s New in Electronics and Australian Electronics Engineering for Trinity Mirror, CMP and RBI in the U.K. and Australia. In 2006, Steven became a freelance journalist specializing in electronics. He is based in Sydney.
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