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How has Formula E affected the electric vehicle market?

Formula E: Driving the electric revolution

Even now, electric vehicles (EVs) are perceived as slow and sluggish with a short mileage range. This isn’t the case, with many EVs achieving 0-30 times way above their internal combustion engine counterparts. It is true, however, that these heavy vehicles do have to be driven carefully in order to get the maximum range.

Electric-only manufacturer Tesla has done a lot to change this perception with its sleek Model S, that can do 0-62 in 2.5 seconds with Ludicrous Mode engaged.

Another public face of electric cars is Formula E. With futuristic single-seaters that take inspiration from modern Formula One cars, this sport is growing in popularity as its third season begins.

Formula E focuses on quick, close racing in city centres and doesn’t go to purpose-built tracks like most racing series. The purpose of this is to promote sustainable mobility in urban areas in the hope that it’ll encourage more people to make the switch to electric.

Since Formula E’s first season in 2014, electric vehicle sales have jumped dramatically. Back then there were only about 10,000 EVs on the road, today there are around 85,000. It’s unlikely that this surge in popularity is down to Formula E alone but instead a number of factors. Firstly, the UK charging infrastructure has grown dramatically, from around 5,000 chargers in 2014 up to 11,500 at the end of 2016, and the range of EVs is growing all the time as battery technology improves.

Formula E is responsible for bringing electric vehicle technology to the global stage and shows people that these cars can race fast and hard, albeit silently with the need for a car swap halfway through.

A relative newcomer to the series, Jaguar understands the impact the sport is having on the electric industry. James Barclay, team director of Panasonic Jaguar Racing says: "For Jaguar in particular, the beginning of Panasonic Jaguar Racing's first race season coincided with the reveal of our new electric vehicle, the Jaguar I-PACE concept, demonstrating the fact that everything we learn on the track will be filtered and developed into our future electrification strategy.

"So with race-to-road technology transfer, competitive racing in inner city venues allowing teams to connect to a new global audience, and more manufacturers announcing their intentions to compete in the series, we are certain that Formula E will have a lasting impact on the electric vehicle industry for years to come."

Translating the technology

Formula E is more than just a motorsport series, it’s a living laboratory for manufacturers to test new technologies that could work in their road cars. As well as Jaguar, Audi is already using its presence in the sport to develop an all-new electric car.

Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Motorsport says: “Electric mobility is one of the key topics in our field. We intend to evolve into one of the leading premium manufacturers in this field. By 2025, every fourth Audi should be an electric vehicle. The first model for this is planned to be an SUV we’re going to present in 2018. In the light of these plans, adapting our motorsport program and taking up a commitment in a fully electric racing series is only a logical move.”

It's not the first time Audi has pioneered its engine technology in motorsport, as Ullrich explains: “Audi has consistently been using motorsport to test and develop new technologies further for subsequent use in production. With quattro drive we revolutionised rally racing and subsequently set standards in circuit racing as well.

“In the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi was the first manufacturer to have achieved victories with a TFSI engine, a TDI, and a hybrid race car and made motorsport history with them on several occasions. Now we intend to repeat this in fully electric racing. Formula E with its races being held in the hearts of major cities is an ideal stage for this purpose and Team ABT Schaeffler Audi Sport a logical partner for us.”

Other manufacturers such as Renault, Mahindra Reva and Citroen’s DS brand all have teams within the sport and are using it as way to develop new engines and technologies for their road cars.

Yves Bonnefont, CEO of DS Automobiles says: “For the DS brand, [Formula E] is a way to accelerate the development of new electric technologies, as a result, you will see either a plug-in hybrid or a fully electric engine available on all future DS models.”

The story of motorsport technology making its way from the track to the road is one of the oldest stories in the automotive industry. It’s been happening in Formula One for years and the outputs from this race-to-road technology sharing are evident in cars such as the Ferrari La Ferrari, the McLaren supercars and the Williams F1 team has adapted the electric flywheel from its kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) for Porsche and Audi.

Consumer perception

Simply having Formula E turn up in cities around the world, exposes people to what an electric powertrain can do.

Even now, there’s still the assumption that all EVs are little golf-cart type vehicles but seeing that these cars can race wheel-to-wheel with so much of that technology going into road cars, that perception is bound to change.

John Cowan of Spirit Motorsport, which provides strategic marketing services to teams and drivers across a range of different racing series, says: “Formula E has shown that EVs can have a high performance threshold. For years, my view of EVs was that they had performance levels equal to a milk float. One issue that has not impressed me with Formula E, though, is battery life. When I buy an electric car, I need its batteries to be equal to the range produced by a tank of petrol.”

The range of an electric car is still something consumers worry about and this isn't being combatted within Formula E. Part of the strategy of a team is to choose when they swap their cars. Because the cars are going so fast and charging takes so long, the drivers have to hop into another, fully charged car mid-way through the race.

The FIA is aware that in a perfect world the hour-long race would be completed with just one car but with current battery technology, that’s just not possible.

The hope for manufacturers and consumers alike is that Formula E will drive battery technology and make it more efficient, in order to get a range similar to those produced by regular internal combustion engine cars.

The perception of electric vehicles is changing and this is down to a combination of improved range, better infrastructure, more desirable models, the environment and the exposure Formula E has given to these cars in urban environments. The development of new technologies both in and out of the sport will help to drive the industry forward.

Read more: Formula E team Next EV creates the world's fastest electric car

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