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 September 18, 2013
Electric vehicles, hybrids flaunt advantages on the race track

 Formula One race cars will take to the track this week in Singapore, where they'll reach blistering speeds above 200 mph, some of them with the aid of electric drive technology.

Prominent racing teams, including Marussia and Williams, are racing this year with kinetic energy recovery systems, or KERS, which are designed to recuperate a vehicle's braking energy and use it during acceleration. Other top teams, including McLaren, Ferrari and Renault, have used KERS technology in various races since the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) legalized it in 2009.

"The advantage of the electric vehicle [EV] platform is it collects that wasted kinetic energy on a turn. I can convert that into electrons, and I can put that right back into my battery for it to be used by the electric motor later. It's like I'm cheating physics a little bit," said John Waters, an energy consultant and EV pioneer who helped develop General Motors Co.'s first electric car, the EV1, in the 1990s.

"In a Formula One car, all of that energy just goes to the brakes," he added. "Those brakes literally turn red-hot, and all of that energy turns to heat."

Building on motorsport's shift toward more efficient, green racing, electric-drive technology will claim the spotlight next year in a race all of its own. The FIA Formula E Championship, set to launch in September 2014, will be the world's first global electric race series.

A formula for more everyday use?

At the Frankfurt Motor Show last week, racing industry leaders unveiled the fully electric Spark-Renault SRT_01E race car to compete in the inaugural Formula E Championship. The lightweight, single-seater car was designed and built by Spark Racing Technology with help from technical partner Renault and a handful of other companies leading in EV production.

"The innovative technology deployed [in the SRT_01E] follows the best environmental practices, highlighting the potential of the Formula E Championship to spark a revolution in the development of new electromobility systems, not just for motorsport but also for everyday use," said FIA President Jean Todt, at the launch event last week.

"This new championship builds on the FIA's traditional role as a leading promoter of innovation, technology and performance in the automotive sector," he added.

While EV race cars are already competitive with some of the fastest internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, they do have some limitations. Lithium-ion batteries, the technology of choice for EVs today, have 1.5 percent the energy density of gasoline. As a result, the cars have a limited ability to store power for propulsion.

On an oval track like the Indianapolis 500 -- where there are few opportunities to take advantage of regenerative braking -- an EV could only complete four or five laps before it would need to have its battery swapped, according to Waters.

But in other applications, EVs have strong advantages. On a road course with lots of turns, an EV can race at 150 mph for about 35 minutes, which is comparable to ICE racing times.

Going for 400 mph plus

EVs also use energy more efficiently than their internal combustion engine counterparts, which allows for instant torque. According to Waters, the transition from energy storage to forward propulsion in an EV is more than 90 percent efficient, in contrast to 35 percent efficient for ICE vehicles. Electric cars also produce less heat, less noise and zero tailpipe emissions, and don't rely on foreign oil, he added.

Harnessing the strengths of electric drive technology, experimental electric cars have sustained speeds above 180 mph and have hit speeds above 300 mph. This week, the Venturi Buckeye Bullet team from the Ohio State University Center for Automotive Research -- which already holds a number of international EV racing titles -- set the goal to best 400 mph and set a new EV speed record.

"The decision was not to be fast just for EVs or fast just for a group of students, but to be fast, period, which means pitting yourself against gasoline cars and the fastest cars in the world, and to do that, you have to go over 400 mph," said David Cooke, a graduate student at Ohio State and Venturi Buckeye Bullet team leader.

Unusually wet weather and flooding at the test site on Utah's Bonneville Salt Flats forced organizers yesterday to call off the event. The Ohio team will now have to wait until next year to showcase what their EV can do. In the meantime, Cooke said, they'll keep tweaking and testing the Venturi Buckeye Bullet and advancing technologies that could one day end up in consumer cars.

"Our vehicle is narrow, 30 feet long, 3 feet wide and 3 feet tall. So you look at this thing, and it looks like a missile. So people say 'What can we possibly learn from this? It's just a lot of money to go fast,'" he said. "But in the end, we've worked with our sponsors and suppliers to develop a custom battery pack, completely new motors and inverters, and they're all pushing technology to their limits. And when you push them to their limits and see how they break, you can build them stronger next time."