In the past few years there have been several moves in the Formula 1 Championship that have been aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of these races. There has been the introduction of KERS and now with the engine restrictions applied on it, the quest for fuel economy is on. The FIA has last year announced their plans to create a new championship, the Formula E, in which electric vehicles will compete. Not surprisingly after plans of EV Cup, the TTX GP (electric motorcycle racing) and the snow races at Val Thorens [??], the FIA has to catch up a bit. During my visit to the FIA headquarters in Paris I had an interesting discussion with the technical director, learning from their plans in more detail and providing the FIA with some missing links they had not considered yet.
The FIA, with its president Jean Todt
Last year the FIA has made the announcement at the Geneva Auto Convention (see video below) that they want to strengthen their innovation role for the automotive industry. In sports there is always a new edge to be gained. A lighter car, a more efficient drivetrain or recouping of energy that was lost otherwise. The role the FIA envisions is similar to the space industry, where under the extreme conditions new methods and ways have to be developed as conventional thinking falls short. It is therefore that the FIA want to organize the Formula E Championship, as most of the innovation currently in the automotive is happening around electric vehicles. Getting the best of both worlds so to say.
The FIA plan
The plan of the FIA as it was announced halfway 2011, was to organize the racing event as a sort of Urban/City marketing program. Races would be close to the public if they can be in city centers, promoting both the EV technology and the host. The format would allow for a race of about 15 minutes, due to the limitations in battery technology and a balance between speed/weight. After this session, there would be a break, allowing to recharge the batteries using for example fast charging or battery swaps. During the break the program allows for some other promotional activities to happen, manufacturers of EVs giving demonstrations, demos of other cars on the track, etc. after the break there would be another 15 minute session of the race.
During my discussions with the FIA I highlighted some of the problems I saw with their plans.
The battery swap is not something I see happening in the consumer car market soon, due to a too small adoption of the standard by the OEMs. Most car manufacturers have decided on their own battery format, having them change to a uniform battery form factor at this stage… I don’t think so. It is viable however in a racing environment, volumes of cars are small anyway and each team having their own recharged battery in the pit lane is not such a bad idea. In fact, this is how the DUT racing team from Delft operates their electric racer as well.
Battery swapping like Better Place - In a pitlane?
The fast charger approach seems more likely in my opinion, it is more in line with where the consumer market is heading to at the moment with fast charger coverage. Not only would it boost innovation in fast charging, but there is also the option to use current installed fast chargers in the city, or share the investment of the fast chargers between Formula E and the city. During a race the fast chargers would be for the race, else the chargers are for the city to use.
The only real problem I saw was in the limited duration of the actual race. Compared to the Formula 1, which takes about 1,5-2 hours to complete, this would be half an hour of actual racing, stretched a bit by some extra advertisements in a break. To be able to increase the duration of the race, either the cars would need more energy on board, making the cars heavier, or some way to get energy quicker. Or while they drive around the track.
Together with the TU Delft I have had an interesting discussion quite some time ago on a concept of the Inductrophy, a race format that is similar to the Solar Challenge in Australia, only focussed on electric vehicles using inductive charging while they race. Inductive charging is not a totally new concept; there are quite a few companies in the world who make these systems. They are all geared towards charging while the car is in a parking space or in the garage. For the longer term, they all anticipate roads that allow you to charge on the go, a great way to overcome range anxiety! In racing it also significantly reduces the battery size and more importantly, the battery weight. Less weight, equals more speed in racing, which adds to the fun/thrill to watch this sport.
The Lola-Drayson B12/69EV - It also uses inductive charging technology to top up - Video
Having contacted the FIA with my proposal on an inductive race, some weeks later I got a call from the technical director telling me he was interested to hear more. Inductive charging was a technology he was not that familiar with, especially related to cars. So after being invited over to Paris i’ve provided a full update on this technology and its potential for the racing industry. Having shared our visions on how electric racing will evolve and what it will look like, both the FIA and I have learned a lot.
The Formula E in 2013
Given that the FIA prefers to run the races in an urban environment, as part of city marketing, it was found not feasible now to install an inductive charged race track in an urban environment. Given the cost of installation at the moment, it might also be better to wait as well for prices to drop. The added advantage is clear, a potentially unlimited race can rival even the Le Mans. It is more likely that in 2013 they will go for fast charging instead, an option which has the bonus of providing fast chargers to the city hosting the event as well (though probably the fast chargers are unlikely to be a gift from the FIA.
I would still love to see the Formula E start as I’m sure it will be a big success for innovation in the automotive industry. Lighter cars that drive farther and faster, count me in!