The Speed Demons Racing to Make Your Car Greener
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The future of sustainable mobility might be found on a racetrack.
By Tom Cassauwers
- Electric racing cars are leading the innovations that could drive mainstream electric cars of the future.
- Technologies tested on the racetrack are making their way onto roads.
Brazilian racing driver Nelson Piquet Jr. waved his trophy, clearly elated. It was 2015, and he had just won the first Formula E championship, the electrical equivalent of Formula 1. Just like its petrol-based big brother, Formula E traverses the world with its fully electric cars, and teams race on tracks from Moscow to London.
Joan Orús, COO of QEV Technologies, the team behind Piquet’s win, recalls the moment fondly. “It felt really nice,” he says, the memory bringing a smile to his face. “We competed against big manufacturers and brands, and won.”
In fact, Piquet’s triumph laid the ground for bigger wins for the company — and for electric racing cars more broadly, as they emerge as innovators leading the automobile industry’s transition to clean energy. Four years after that championship win, in 2019, the CEO of QEV Technologies shook hands with European bureaucrats at a press conference in Lisbon. The European Investment Bank had just announced a 17 million euro investment in QEV for the firm to build electric buses for developing countries. In a few years, they went from designing race cars to building buses for countries like the Philippines.
There’s other evidence too of this trickle-down effect from electric motorsport to the automobile industry. Until a few years ago, most electric road cars used voltages of around 300-400 volts, while race cars used higher voltages of around 700-900 volts. These higher ranges offer benefits such as better energy efficiency, faster charging and less heat generation, yet initially they were more expensive. Now, high-end road cars such as the Audi e-tron are also adopting the higher-voltage systems.
Electric vehicle technology moves “from race to road,” says Orús. “Formula E made the transition from low to high voltage possible,” says Sylvain Filippi, managing director of the Envision Virgin Racing Formula E Team.
Nothing tests car technology better than motorsport.
Sylvain Filippi, managing director, Envision Virgin Racing Formula E Team
In some ways, electric motorsports are building on a legacy created by their petrol counterparts. Motorsport, electric or not, has long served as a testing ground for new innovations. Technologies ranging from disc brakes to ABS (which prevents wheels from locking up) were pioneered in motorsport and are extensively used in road cars today.
Now, as the transportation industry increasingly moves toward electric vehicles, Formula E could be the test lab that propels the sector forward.
“Nothing tests car technology better than motorsport,” says Filippi. Cars are driven to the extreme limits of their capabilities and track conditions are often unpredictable. During the interview, Filippi was preparing for a race on a searing-hot track in Berlin in the middle of a heat wave.
Filippi, originally from France, is an electric motorsport veteran. He co-founded EVCup, a predecessor to Formula E. He had previously worked in the regular automotive industry for 20 years before trying his hand at electric. “I tested a Tesla Roadster on the track and fell in love,” he recalls. “I went from being a petrol head to an electric head.”
QEV Technologies now employs more than 100 people in Barcelona. They still work on motorsport as well as electric hypercars but increasingly use their knowledge in projects like electric buses. “We sell a transition of knowledge from motorsport to the road,” says Orús.
Olivier Trescases, an engineering professor and director of the Electric Vehicle Research Centre at the University of Toronto, recognizes the value of technology transfer between the racetrack and the road. Racing allows engineers to push the boundaries of new technologies like high-voltage systems. Yet he also cautions against too much hype. “You need to be careful of the PR spin,” he says
Race cars are optimized for extreme performance during short races, which isn’t necessarily directly transferable to regular vehicles whose systems must endure a decade or more on the road. Certain popular racing car materials, like lightweight carbon fiber, are also still too expensive for most mass-produced cars.
Often it’s the more indirect things that get transferred, like software that controls the braking, or the heat management systems. “It’s more about the transfer of specialized knowledge, processes and software while guiding future technology development, rather than the direct transfer of hardware,” says Trescases.
Nevertheless, the PR spin might also be a good thing, he concedes. “The single most important contribution of these races is changing the public perception of electric vehicles,” says Trescases. They make electric cars sexy and counter their traditional image of being unattractive and sluggish.
In the meantime, more people are tuning in to Formula E every year — their audience grew 24 percent last year. “It’s a huge platform to talk about solutions for climate change,” says Filippi. “Even regular motorsport fans are now watching Formula E, just because the races are so much fun.”
- Tom Cassauwers, OZY AuthorContact Tom Cassauwers