Can Formula E electrify mainstream motoring?
Formula E will close it out its 10-race season this weekend in London's iconic Battersea Park, in front of 60,000 cheering petrolheads.
Except there won’t be any petrol involved.
While fans will go for the entertainment of another closely-contested race (the cars and batteries are all the same), they will be unwitting participants in a great experiment that Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag hopes will “revolutionise sustainable motoring”.
He believes that the technological innovation and ‘cool factor’ of Formula E’s electric racing will help drive ultra-low emission cars into the mainstream
“The vast majority of people will only buy electric cars when they are cheaper and better than the alternative” says Agag. “So the solution is simple. We must make electric cars better and cheaper than petrol cars.”
Formula E’s role in this is to act as a testing ground for new batteries, tyres, energy recovery systems and aerodynamics that will ultimately filter down to road cars, just as fuel injection and rear-view mirrors were taken from Formula 1.
Agag, who is speaking at the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership’s annual conference, explains that the batteries have already improved in efficiency in the first season, and he expects them to double in power and thus range within five years.
How quickly that trickles down to road cars is up to manufacturers, but four or five major car companies could be involved in Formula E next season, including current participants Renault, Audi and Indian firm Mahendra.
The efficiency of the tyres – which use around 20% of the energy going into a car – is another area where Formula E has made significant breakthroughs. Only one set of tyres are allowed per race meeting, and they have to be functional in the dry and in the wet, necessitating efficiency and durability
Pascal Couasnon, the director of Michelin Motorsport – which supplies all the tyres to Formula E – says the sport is a “great accelerator of innovation”.
“Because Formula E is so new, there are no traditions or set way of doing things, so I went to Alejandro Agag and asked if we could switch to bigger 18-inch tyres, which would improve efficiency. And that’s what we did.”
The cars also feature energy recovery systems in the engines which could improve efficiency by a further 18%.
However, these technological breakthroughs are only half the battle, according to Agag. He believes electric cars still need to shed their ‘milk float, anorak’ reputation. Before this series even began, consulting firm EY estimates the exposure given to electric vehicles by Formula E could generate an extra £65m in sales over the next 25 years.
That ambitious target has been backed up by research carried out by Formula E at its Miami race event, where 99% of spectators surveyed said they would be more likely to buy an electric car, having watched the race.
“A lot of these spectators are young too,” says Agag. “And that’s really who we are targeting. We see a lot more kids at the races than normal motorsport thanks to the absence of noise and fumes, and if they see electric cars as racing machines, they’re much more likely to buy one when they’re older.”
VIDEO: Take a tour round the Battersea Formula E circuit
With the end of the season now in sight, Agag freely admits there was a “70, 80, 90% chance we would never get here”, thanks to the difficulty of organing motor races in ten different cities, and creating cars for a championship that didn’t exist, and a championship for cars that didn’t exist.
“But now we are swimming downstream,” he says.
He points to tech giants like Tesla and their Model S, and the news that Apple could be mass-producing electric cars by 2020, as signs that Formula E is onto a winner.
“The Apple thing is massive. It creates this snowball effect and I think the mainstreaming could happen very quickly. Who knows, maybe we could see an Apple or Tesla Formula E team in the next few years.”
Formula E’s plans going forward are equally ambitious. This weekend’s race will see the safety car fully powered by solar energy for the first time – something that Agag wants to eventually roll out to the race-cars themselves.
However, charging all the cars at once would require solar panels “covering the whole of Battersea Park”, something which is out the picture for now. Instead, the focus will be on finding and developing yet another emerging technology – energy storage.
Zurich-based bank UBS recently claimed that the introduction of home energy storage systems, combined with solar panels and electric cars, could spell the end of traditional power stations and petrol and diesel vehicles, as people become completely energy independent.
With the engineering support of the world’s largest car manufacturers and the electrical wizardry of tech giants like Tesla and Apple, who would bet against Formula E making this electric vehicle utopia a reality?