Formula E Gaining a Solid Footing in the Motorsports World

“The future is here.” That’s the mantra of Robocar (pictured above), a new entry into the rapidly unfolding world of electric vehicle racing. And while Robocar clearly represents cutting edge technology, GimmeInfo readers know that battery-powered race cars have been working there way onto the Motorsports scene over the past few years.

In fact, our readers may recall that a little over a year ago, Bill Nye “The Science Guy”  (science educator, television presenter, writer and former mechanical engineer) challenged NASCAR to consider redirecting its focus from internal combustion engines to battery-driven power plants. (See our previous post on this subject.) The hypothetical dare  “How about NASCAR becoming NESCAR (National Electric Stock Car Racing)?” launched in his blog post was supported by some intriguing validation ranging from noise abatement to Co2 reduction, and may have caused a number of speed fans to take notice. So far, though, the stock car world hasn’t seen much development in this area.

But that’s not to say the concept of electric vehicles in racing has remained dormant. In fact, as GimmeInfo reported last summer, the 2016/2017 FIA Formula E Championship year–the third in its history–kicked off October 9 in Hong Kong and is now three races into its 12-event season calendar, with event number four scheduled for Saturday, April 6 in Mexico City. And it’s been a successful venture so far, with Alejandro Agag, Founder and CEO of the FIA Formula E Championship, declaring in remarks delivered at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona that, “Formula E is more than just a race. Formula E is part of the technology revolution in the motor industry.” He went on to say, “Formula E is the vision of the future of sustainable mobility. We have a mission that will make society better. Our mission is that one day, every car in the world is electric, and every car in the world will be electric. But to achieve that, you need to provide a practical solution.”

Keeping an Eye on the Environment

In his Mobile World remarks, Agag stressed the environmental priorities associated with Formula E racing, noting that, ““We have big challenges ahead of us, we have climate change, we have city pollution, we have the problem of producing energy in a sustainable way around the world,” he said. “For all those challenges, technology is the only way. So in a way the technology community, if you want to call it that, all of us in this room, have a big responsibility, which is to provide those solutions.” 

And one of the ways Formula E racing is addressing the environmental challenge is to eschew the use of fossil fuels to power its fleet of electric racing machines. In fact, the batteries used to power these high-horsepower cars are fueled by glycerol– a colorless, odorless sugar alcohol synthesized from salt water alga. As reported by Eric Bradley, Press-Telegram, the mixture would even be safe to drink. Here’s how he characterized it in his article, “It’s sweet, unsurprisingly, with a bitter body and a saccharine finish.” Probably not something you’d want to serve at a dinner party…but wait, if you’re guests are racers, maybe so?

Keeping an Eye on Costs

As anyone who follows motorsports is aware, the cost of operating a race team–even for a single race–has escalated dramatically over the past few years to the point that the start-up of a new team has become prohibitive. In the United States, this fact has manifested itself as a steady decline in car counts at events, the corresponding steady loss of a fan base for auto racing, and the loss of race tracks, especially small, local venues. While NASCAR continues to enjoy a relatively high level of popularity, there has lately been room for concern as attendance drops. Other top racing tiers like IndyCar and Formula 1 have also been impacted as what was once a robust level of fan appeal seems to be succumbing to a growing level of disinterest in racing as the n umber of entertainment options continues to grow.

Given declining economics as a backdrop, how successful would one expect a new start-up racing series to be? Well, surprisingly, it looks like Formula E may be successfully bucking the headwinds. And one of the ways they’re accomplishing this is through a sharp eye on costs. In its inaugural season (2014/2015), for example, the series restricted car selection to identical single-seat vehicles (the Spark-Renault SRT_01E) with a single McLaren Electronic Systems powertrain. This measure of standardization allowed for more predictability and stability in equipment costs, making a financially-controlled evolution of the series more likely.

Once its successful first season was in the books, Formula E gave recognition to the simple fact that motorsports has always been a hotbed for technological innovation and quickly shifted its stance by announcing that “the series will become an open championship allowing manufacturers to pursue their own in-house innovations, beginning with the development of bespoke powertrains.” Eight manufacturers were aproved for the second season:  ABT  Sportsline, Andretti, Mahindra, Motomatica, NEXTEV TCR, Renault Sport, Venturi Automobiles, and Virgin Racing Engineering.

Still, the need to have some measure of control on how fast the technology evolves remained in the air, with FIA President Jean Todt announcing in February of 2015 that ““The gradual opening up of the regulations will promote innovation, while at the same time keeping costs under control. The solutions chosen by the manufacturers will hopefully lead to rapid development of the future-focused technologies at the heart of Formula E.”

Innovation Produces New Lines of Race Cars

Just as Formula E predicted, the development of this form of competition has proven to be a stimulus for the development of battery-powered racing machines, as evidenced by our recent post highlighting electric vehicles crossing the 1,000 horsepower threshold. And now, a new frontier is being pioneered: the driverless electric race car. One of the early entries in this groundbreaking category is a teardrop shaped, aerodynamic autonomous unit called “Robocar,” designed by automotive futurist Daniel Simon. You may have heard of him…he’s known for the spectacular vehicle designs appearing in movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, as well as book, “Cosmic Motors.” 

Robocar was unveiled last month at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, where it was hailed as the intersection of motorsports and the “unstoppable rise of artificial intelligence,” according to Simon. The press release accompanying the announcement describes Robocar’s specifications this way, “The car … weighs 975kg and measures 4.8m long and 2m wide. It has 4 motors 300kW each, 540kW battery, is predominantly made of carbon fibre and will be capable of speeds over 320kph. The car uses a number of technologies to ‘drive’ itself including 5 lidars, 2 radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, 2 optical speed sensors, 6 AI cameras, GNSS positioning and is powered by Nvidia’s Drive PX2 brain, capable of up to 24 trillion A.I. operations per second to be programmed by teams’ software engineers using complex algorithms.”

Sounds wild, and the car has an equally wild look that makes it appear fast just sitting still! To get a good look at the car and its fantastic design, take a look at this page of the Robocar website.

And stay tuned for future updates on Roborace, the motorsports championship series featuring autonomously driven, electrically powered vehicles. This new series will kick off during the 2016/2017 Formula E season.


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