A Formula E car racing on track

Can Formula E drive the EV future?

Electric motorsport Formula E launched with a blaze of publicity last year. But although the buzz has died down, does it have the spark to boost sales of electric cars?

Up until last year, electric cars had not been represented in the sporting arena - despite a long history of existence that includes holding the ultimate land speed record in 1899 when Camille Jenatzy’s La Jamais Contente became the first ever vehicle to achieve 100km/h. Over 100 years after Jenatzy broke that barrier, electric vehicles have now gained serious traction from automotive manufacturers with the recent releases of the Fiat 500E, Tesla Model S, and the BMW i3. Though once seen as an unrealistic alternative to fuel, EVs are becoming an option for the eco-conscious buyer, and are now making their way into motorsport.Electric racing series Formula E was launched in September 2014, grabbing attention with its sci-fi engine notes, city-centre racing focused on sustainability and aims of engaging with a younger, more environmentally conscious audience than is normally associated with motorsport.

Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, explained that the new series was about promoting the values of electric vehicles and developing the technology that powers them.

The development of Formula E as a championship and the emerging role of the EV appear to be intrinsically linked. From season two, starting in September, Formula E teams will be able to produce their own powertrains - specifically the e-motor, inverter, gearbox and cooling system - that had previously been a standard unit. The ultimate aim is to make the battery last the entire race distance and avoid the nightmare of drivers swapping cars mid-race.

Governments around the globe also have a keen interest in the progress of EV technology thanks to their commitments to cut emissions and reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In Britain, the current Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has talked of introducing zones in the centre of the city reserved solely for low-emission vehicles and electric cars. City centres are the natural home of the EV because of their high levels of congestion and typically short journeys - hence Formula E’s conscious decision to race exclusively on circuits constructed in built-up areas.

What makes EVs tick?

Electric vehicles these days use powertrains made up of an electric motor, battery pack, power electronics and often an energy recovery system to generate power from braking and heat loss. All of these combine to make the word ‘engine’ defunct in an EV and produce silent, efficient running with smooth and instant acceleration.

As well as huge amounts of torque and low noise levels, the benefits of running an EV are cheap running costs thanks to lower electricity prices when compared to petrol, efficiency of the powertrain and low emission levels produced as a result of using an EV for shorter, more frequent journeys.

“Electric vehicles benefit from sizeable government subsidies, profoundly low running costs and negligible fuel emissions,” says Dimitris Samiotakis, managing director at Northstar Research Partners. “This type of guilt-free motoring makes absolute financial sense, yet take-up by consumers remains at best lukewarm.

“Performance is limited. Batteries take up cargo space and make the vehicle heavy. Many regard the inevitable need to recycle the batteries every few years as partially negating the eco credentials. It is a direct trade-off with driving range and as such in almost all cases takes second priority, again rendering it more of a utilitarian solution to transportation rather than a real, exciting alternative to conventional engines.”

While Formula E attempts to attract a new audience to the EV market, automotive manufacturers have been trying to introduce the EV with varying degrees of support and success over a number of years. “To a large extent manufacturers have been limited by the technology available,” says Samiotakis. “Tesla and BMW are manufacturers who entered the electrification arena with a completely different perspective, delivering electric vehicles marketed on design, style and technology. In these early days a Tesla Model S or a BMW i8 offered the style and performance of a supercar, but for an eye-watering price. Similarly Volvo’s new XC90 delivers 400bhp from a two-litre four-cylinder engine through the integration of hybrid technology.

“However electrification knowhow is progressing fast and car manufacturers are fuelling a lot of the momentum. Large strides in battery technology will soon see battery sizes shrink, reduced charging times and far larger power outputs. Power management and recovery systems are improving fast, while electric motor efficiency is also improving.”

Sales of commercial electric cars such as the Renault Zoe and the Nissan Leaf have been relatively low despite the cost benefits of owning an EV over its lifecycle. The falling oil price and the recent squeeze on the global economy have certainly contributed to that, but EVs still appear to have bigger problems.

Sodium-ion vs lithium-ion

The batteries used in EVs are heavy and expensive; on a Formula E car they make up over a third of the overall weight at 320kg. As a result, EVs tend to have much higher initial purchase costs than equivalent internal combustion engine cars. This could be putting off potential buyers despite the benefit of low running costs.

“The main issue around EV cost is the battery, but of course [EVs] are much cheaper to run and operate because charging up on electricity is much cheaper than getting fuel,” says John Leech, head of automotive at KPMG. “The outlay is high initially because of this battery cost, but actually you benefit over the long term of the vehicle. Now the issue is that the first buyer really only owns the car for maybe three or five years - so they don’t get much of that long term 10 or 15 year benefit of getting lower running costs to offset that original high sticker price.”

British company Faradion is developing sodium-ion batteries that have several advantages over existing lithium-ion products. Faradion claims that sodium-ion batteries can be produced at around 30 per cent lower cost thanks to the abundance of sodium salts, which cost one tenth of the price of equivalent salts in lithium-ion batteries, and lower electrolyte costs. With EV lithium-ion batteries typically costing £6,500-£10,000, the 30 per cent saving offered by sodium-ion represents a significant saving.

When Faradion started developing the sodium-ion batteries, the firm believed they would primarily be used for energy storage but after a significant number of enquiries from within the automotive industry, applying this technology to the EV could be on the agenda.

However, electronics giant Bosch sees it differently. “We rely on lithium-ion and we say that’s the future of battery technology,” says Florian Flaig, Bosch’s powertrain representative. “For the next 10 years we can say lithium-ion is very likely to be the standard technology with hybrid power trains or electrical power trains because it is a standardised technology.” Bosch reckons that within five years it can halve the cost of EV batteries and double their power output at the same time. The firm plans to achieve this by experimenting with the cell chemistry of lithium-ion batteries and introducing intelligent management of the cells.

“We see a really good potential in lithium-?ion batteries to bring [them] onto the market with half the cost and double energy density,” explains Flaig. “From a theoretical point it’s clear what you can do. You can optimise the cell chemistry, which means you can change the materials of the cell and that really brings a benefit.

“It’s easy doing some batteries that have a high energy density, but it is hard creating a battery that has a high energy density and lasts 10 years. We say our real core strength in batteries is to manage these cells. Just from the intelligent management system you can generate 10 per cent more range because of the intelligent steering of the cells.”

Range anxiety

Whilst the perception of the EV has come a long way since they were regularly referred to as ‘milk floats’, the main image problem stems from range anxiety: the idea amongst consumers that their car could run out of charge during a journey and leave them stranded with no way of recharging.

Formula E, for all its good work on promoting EV technology, has not helped this because the battery life of a Spark-Renault SRT _01E only lasts for the duration of half a Formula E race. This forces the drivers to perform a slightly inelegant car swap mid-race and does little to reassure consumers with serious range anxiety. While the cars are capable of producing 200kW - equivalent to 270bhp - this can only be achieved during single flying laps in qualifying. For the race, the power level falls to around 150kW.

The public perception of road-going EVs has also suffered from a lack of confidence in their battery life. “The brand positioning of these cars has been focused on green and innovative people and so they’ve tried to come up with car designs that are quirky to people that are a bit quirky themselves. I think that hasn’t helped the branding of electric cars for the masses,” says KPMG’s Leech. “The challenges ahead remain range anxiety, charging infrastructure, time it takes to charge, concerns about battery degradation. All of these are real hard issues that people, when they are about to part with they’re money, do spend a lot of time thinking about, and battery technology is the key to unlocking that.”

A vehicle with an internal combustion engine needs filling it up with fuel at regular intervals, but by and large it is left alone unless it develops a fault. The need to plug in an EV would involve an extra step in everyday routine that could have repercussions if forgotten.

Plugging in pure EVs every night is anathema to car manufacturers but Qualcomm has come up with a solution: wireless charging. Qualcomm sees a future where EV owners could get access to wireless charging pads at various areas around cities where they could recharge while stopped for a short period of time.

Hybrids: here for now

Another area of motorsport has featured high-performance hybrid technology for several years. The World Endurance Championship features prototype racers famous for competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours race. The cars combine extremely efficient internal combustion engines with electrified hybrid elements to generate lap times comparable to Formula 1 machines which would obliterate Formula E cars in a race situation.

These powerful hybrid machines offer the power and pace of a conventional internal combustion engine along with the rapid acceleration and energy recovery capabilities of an electric vehicle.

Bosch predicts that in 2020, 90 per cent of new vehicles produced will be at least partially powered by fossil fuels, but by combining them with EV technology, they will perform better than ever before.

“Electrification will take combustion engines to new heights,” says Bosch’s chairman of mobility solutions, Dr Rolf Bulander. “Electrification means internal combustion engines are going to experience their best period of service life yet. Hybrids and mild hybrids make internal combustion engines capable of being operated in the optimum range, and in this way they can be used more effectively and efficiently.”

Plug-in hybrids from major OEMs make up the majority of electric powered cars sold around the world, and the manufacturers believe that until battery EV technology becomes economically viable to consumers and the infrastructure to charge them hassle-?free is in place, plug-in hybrids will continue to dominate the fledgling market.

In September 2015, Volvo plans to launch the XC90 hybrid seven-seater car, which features a two-litre, four-cylinder powertrain that produces 400hp with CO2 emissions of just 64g/km. Despite this investment in hybrid technology, the company says its vision for EVs is still achievable. “With the electric vehicles we still need a few years to get them really economically viable for us. The range anxiety needs to be away and the economy needs to be there, but I have no doubt the battery electric vehicle will get there in a few years,” says Mats Anderson, Volvo’s director of electrical systems.

If the loss of range anxiety and higher speed can filter down to EV road cars along with the glamorous image of the sci-fi sport and its environmental benefits, public opinion of the EV will improve and sales figures will increase. Despite slow changes and new developments, hybrid machines offer the best showcase for EV technology for the coming years at least.

Formula E London ePrix 

Image credits: Formula E Operations Ltd

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