Navigant Research Blog

In Racing, EV Doesn’t Mean Slow

Dave Hurst — January 17, 2013

It’s hard to find more passion for motor vehicles than what you see in motorsports, whether it’s motorcycles, NASCAR, rally, drag racing, or Formula 1.  Fans pack the stands and argue vehemently (to put it politely) over whether their favorite type of racing is really best.  Electric vehicles have largely been a footnote in racing, with EV makers focusing on the opposite end of the automotive spectrum by targeting efficiency and practicality.

There have been efforts to change that.  A race to the top of Pikes Peak has introduced electric car classes, won by the Nissan LEAF in 2011 and a Toyota custom-built car in 2012.

The international Formula 1 governing body, FIA, first allowed a hybrid system called the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) in 2009.  These systems were either flywheel, lithium ion battery-based, or both and would provide short bursts of electric drive from regenerative braking systems.  They were not popular and by 2010 all teams had dropped the systems.  KERS came back in 2011 and has been used by some teams since.  Now it’s back with a new twist.  For 2014, Formula 1 rules require that all cars have an energy recovery system (ERS, drop the “K”) that will allow the cars to operate under all electric power in the pits and then restart the engine as they leave the pits.  In addition, the V8 engines of Formula 1 are gone, replaced with V6 powerplants in 2014.  This combination is designed to improve the fuel economy and reduce emissions, particularly in the pits, without eliminating the excitement of racing.

Pit Stops, Hot Swaps

Formula 1 has taken another step into EV racing with the launch of Formula E in 2013.  The development of all-electric Formula 1 cars presents obvious challenges, but the race cars can provide top speeds of between 140 and 200 mph, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times within 3 seconds, and up to 25 minutes of racing.  That last figure will mean to complete the race, instead of pitting to refuel, drivers will pit to switch to fully recharged cars waiting for them.  One of the key advantages already being seen is that dense urban centers that have shunned racing in the past because of the pollution (both noise and emissions) are now showing interest in Formula E racing.  Whether fans follow is yet to be seen.

Formula E is following the footsteps of motorcycle racing, which has already seen growth of the successful eGrandPrix series.  Going into its fourth year, this series is already given credit by some manufacturers for pushing development of more efficient electric motors and better battery systems.  The eGrandPrix has different techniques to get past the range limitations, including shorter races and hot (charged) battery swapping.

While electric and hybrid systems get the bulk of the press, those aren’t the only technologies racing is using to get greener.  IndyCar’s most famous race, the Indy 500, in 2009 switched to 98% ethanol in 2009, citing lower fuel costs and domestic production.  NASCAR has been racing with 10% ethanol since 2011 and in 2012 surpassed 3 million miles with the fuel.  While this program helps reduce the petroleum usage of the cars on the track, it is likely more of a marketing push by ethanol producers than an environmental push by NASCAR.  (The greenhouse gas emissions from RVs idling in the parking lot at most NASCAR races are probably higher than those of the actual racecars on the track.)

Electric and alternative fuel racing proves that wherever there are people passionate about cars, even environmentalists, racing is sure to follow, and being green doesn’t mean you can’t also be insanely fast.

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