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With A Whirr, Not A Roar, Auto Racing Drives Toward An Electric Future

Jul 19, 2021
Originally published on July 20, 2021 4:24 pm

Updated July 20, 2021 at 5:24 PM ET

Earlier this month, two dozen low-slung, open-cockpit race cars sped around the streets of Red Hook in Brooklyn.

A distinct high-pitched whizzing sound pierced the air, instead of the usual growl of revved-up race car engines. That's because these cars were powered entirely by batteries rather than gasoline.

Welcome to Formula E. It's like Formula 1, but it's all-electric.

"Combustion engines are over," Alberto Longo, the co-founder of Formula E, said in early July. "End of story."

Formula E has declared itself the future of racing. At a time when virtually the entire auto industry is embracing the electric vehicle, it's not considered quite as wild of an assertion, though it was seen as a bit of an oddity when the motorsport first launched in 2014.

As electric vehicles race toward the mainstream, the technology has been improving rapidly.

And Formula E is helping to accelerate that progress, the race organizers argue, by serving as an incubator for improved technology – from more efficient motors to faster chargers – that will eventually wind up in ordinary vehicles.

"Every four years we need to change, because technology is advancing so quickly," Longo says. "Every four years your technology is obsolete."

Charging cars in seconds? It's in the works

When Formula E first launched, the batteries in the cars couldn't last for an entire 45-minute race — so drivers stopped halfway through and swapped cars for a new vehicle with a full charge.

Now the event is on its second generation of vehicles. This time, the battery can last an entire race ... usually. It's possible for drivers to run out of juice if they and their pit crews miscalculate. This spring, there was one race where half the drivers didn't cross the finish line.

The third generation of vehicles is in the works. They will be lighter and faster (today, Formula E cars are still significantly slower than their Formula 1 cousins). And to make their smaller batteries last for an entire race, the drivers will stop and charge mid-race — plugging in, as a pit stop.

Stephanie Medeiros is the head of e-mobility for ABB, a Swiss-Swedish company that makes electric vehicle chargers and is the title sponsor for Formula E. ABB will be the official charging supplier for Formula E during its ninth season.

The new vehicles won't be racing until 2022, so Medeiros says she can't provide exact numbers on how quick the pit stops will be.

"The idea is to really shorten it as much as possible," she says. "Whether it's 30 seconds or 60 seconds ... it'll be fast, that's for sure."

How racetracks encourage innovation

Medeiros says that solving the challenge of pit stop charging will provide ABB with valuable data and lessons learned that will, in turn, help charging improve for consumer vehicles. (This is a major issue for would-be electric car buyers, many of whom are not interested in vehicles that take 30 minutes to an hour to fast-charge on a road trip.)

Ten different vehicle manufacturers participate in Formula E right now. All the teams in the race use the same body and battery, but can design their own motor and software to try to gain an advantage over each other on the track.

That means energy management — making engines as efficient as possible, and determining how the battery's power is deployed in given situations — is key.

"Formula E is an amazing place where we invest a lot in the efficiency of the hardware ... and the energy management software," says Tommaso Volpe, the head of motorsports for Nissan.

He points to regenerative braking – technology that allows a car to recharge while it slows down – as an example of an area where Formula E is pushing Nissan to develop more sophisticated technology, which will enable improvements for more mainstream Nissan vehicles in the future.

This argument is not unique to Formula E; advocates of motorsports in general often say that races serve as technology incubators.

But Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at the consulting firm Guidehouse Insights who specializes in electric vehicles, says Formula E has a particularly strong case to make, pointing to thermal management and induction motors as areas where the race really has pushed technology forward.

"Since [electric vehicles] are still relatively new, there are more opportunities to learn here than with traditional internal combustion race cars," he says.

Squeals or spaceships: Car sounds that split opinions

Formula E is part sport and part engineering showcase. But it's also a major marketing event.

That's a big reason why the races are held in the middle of major cities, so passers-by can catch a glimpse of the spectacle.

Like three twenty-something Brooklyn-dwellers who found themselves near the racetrack in Brooklyn's Red Hook by mistake.

They had been in Brooklyn intending to see a free art exhibition. Instead, Grace Hopkins, Soham Khadatare and Sibylle Hornung found themselves catching a peek at the race, and listening to the high-pitched whizzing sounds as the cars raced around the streets.

"This sounds more like squealing, like an animal in pain," Khadatare says, noting he's not sold on it.

"For me, it reminds me of space!" said Hornung. "It's exciting," Hopkins agreed.

Whether bystanders found the sound painful or alluringly spaceship-like, Formula E is just glad that the race is catching people's attention.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Earlier this month, streets in Brooklyn closed for a road race. It's like Formula 1 but with electric vehicles. And it's called Formula E. The technology powering these race cars could wind up in your next electric car. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Three 20-something Brooklyn dwellers are standing outside this Formula E race.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC ENGINE REVVING)

SOHAM KHADATARE: This sounds more like squealing, like some animal in pain (laughter).

SIBYLLE HORNUNG: It reminds me of a spaceship.

DOMONOSKE: They wound up here by mistake.

GRACE HOPKINS: I had told them there was a free art exhibition at Pioneer Works. And we were wrong.

DOMONOSKE: It was a car exhibition, not an art show. So Grace Hopkins, Soham Khadatare and Sibylle Hornung are trying to figure out what's up with these high-pitched sound.

HORNUNG: Are these all electric cars?

DOMONOSKE: The answer is, yes. These low-swung, swoopy cars are all battery-powered. And two-dozen of them are whizzing around on this track right by the warehouses of Red Hook. They don't look anything like a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla Model 3. But there's actually a lot of overlap. For instance, if you ask race car driver Sebastien Buemi what makes this different than Formula 1, he says every electric car owner's two favorite words.

SEBASTIEN BUEMI: You have the instant torque. You always have what you ask for.

DOMONOSKE: Instant torque, this super-fast acceleration that makes every car geek excited. If you've ever driven any electric vehicle, you've felt it. Then he points to another fundamental feature of electric vehicles, one that's all about slowing down.

BUEMI: You're much more efficient at the end because you brake with the electric motor. So you basically recover energy when you brake.

DOMONOSKE: As the car slows down, it recharges its battery. Powerful acceleration and recharging while you brake are basic features on electric vehicles, even commuter cars. And automakers say they can use Formula E as an incubator to make their technology better in a way that will eventually benefit ordinary drivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELECTRIC TOOLS OPERATING)

DOMONOSKE: Before the race began, pit crews were hard at work. All the cars in the race used the same body and battery. But automakers who participate, from Mercedes to Nissan, can tweak the motor and software to try to gain an advantage. Tommaso Volpe is the head of motorsports for Nissan. He says this technology competition could eventually improve, say, a Nissan Leaf, particularly on things like recharging while you brake.

TOMMASO VOLPE: The more sophisticated we develop the regeneration in these cars, the better we will be able in the future to do it for the road cars.

DOMONOSKE: Electric vehicles on the road and the racetrack have been improving rapidly since this race started in 2014. Stephanie Medeiros is the head of e-mobility at ABB, which makes electric vehicle chargers and sponsors Formula E. In the first generation of Formula E cars, she says the batteries just couldn't cut it for an entire race.

STEPHANIE MEDEIROS: What would happen is the drivers would literally have to get out of the car halfway and swap cars.

DOMONOSKE: Now they're on a second generation.

MEDEIROS: So the battery technology, obviously, improved. So now we're at the point that the battery can last the entire race.

DOMONOSKE: Still, range anxiety is definitely a thing on the Formula E racetrack. At one e-prix this spring...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: There's another lap. None of them have energy. This is an absolute catastrophe.

DOMONOSKE: ...Half the cars ran out of juice before the finish line. But in the next generation of vehicles, that won't happen either because the race cars will pull off and charge mid-race. It will be pit stop charging, which means waiting 10 or 15 minutes won't cut it.

MEDEIROS: We don't have the exact numbers, whether it's 30 seconds or even a minute. It'll be fast, that's for sure (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: And this is another way this Formula E race could affect ordinary drivers. Medeiros says these super-fast pit stops will eventually improve charging for all of us.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE KIDS' "QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.