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Electric Racing Quietly Roars Ahead

Formula E car by Panasonic and Jaguar in competition
photo courtesy Jaguar MENA

On Memorial Day weekend, fans will gather in Indianapolis to enjoy the thrill of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

The 106-year-old Indianapolis 500 involves many traditions, from the balloons released before the race begins to the milk winners enjoy in Victory Lane. Some traditions, however, are purely practical. For instance, many auto racing fans at the Indy 500 take the call of “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!” as a cue to don their earplugs. IndyCars – like NASCAR and Formula One vehicles – generate around 140 decibels of sound, enough to cause hearing loss with extended exposure.

But a relatively new automotive sport offers a glimpse of an earplug-free future for race fans.

The FIA Formula E Championship was conceived as a showcase for electric vehicles. The FIA (the initials stand for Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), which also oversees Formula One racing, began developing the idea in 2011, envisioning a racing series to be held in the streets of major world cities. The inaugural race arrived in 2014, along a 2.14-mile circuit on the streets of Beijing. This year Formula E fans can watch electric car drivers compete in Paris the weekend before the Indy 500. And American fans will have a chance to cheer in person in July, with two races in Red Hook, Brooklyn. If New York City is too far away, viewers can tune in on Fox Sports 1.

Formula E has managed to attract the attention of companies such as Audi, Michelin and Renault, and received a profile boost due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-ownership of one of the 10 teams that participated in its inaugural season. The creators of Formula E have demonstrated that they are serious about building the sport’s fan base through social media too, going so far as to build it into the rules. “FanBoost” lets fans vote for their favorite drivers through social media or the Formula E app in the weeks leading up to a race. The three drivers with the most votes receive an extra 100 kilojoules of energy to use during competition, turning fans’ support into a concrete advantage.

As for the sound, Formula E is not silent, but it is much quieter than traditional car racing, at about 80 decibels. Alejandro Agag, Formula E’s CEO, has mentioned that the quieter race will be a boon since the events are held in large cities where louder races might disturb residents, and he expressed hopes that it would encourage more families with younger children to attend. Some fans have expressed less enthusiasm for motors that sound like “vacuums, toys, and Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett playing slide guitar while on LSD,” suggesting there is room for improvement on the auditory front, though others have praised the science fiction-like buzz.

While Formula E is still a young sport, it may have an outsize impact – not through preserving fans’ hearing or reaching young fans, though it may do both. The real influence of Formula E may be to boost innovation for electric cars of all types.

The Formula E website explains that even between the first and second race seasons, manufacturers developed technological improvements to motors, gearboxes and rear suspensions. In the first season, all teams used an identical car, but by the second the FIA opened the field to greater innovation. Formula E leadership has expressed the hope that teams’ innovations will serve as the framework for better electric car technology, and to that end, they have provided increased flexibility for teams to develop a variety of approaches to vehicles’ powertrains.

Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group and a prominent backer of Formula E, declared in 2015: “Formula E will pioneer technology which will be used on normal road cars. Every team next year will be working hard to beat each other, and all that manpower, finance, and energy will produce breakthroughs.”

For instance, the cars demonstrate speed – they reach about 140 mph in race conditions – but still lack endurance. Because the cars can’t last for the entirety of the roughly one-hour race, teams are allowed to swap in a newly charged vehicle around the halfway point. Agag has said he expects battery life to improve to the point where switching is no longer necessary, potentially as soon as Formula E’s fifth season.

We have seen advances developed for racing make their way into mundane vehicles before. Formula E could, in a best-case scenario, jump-start improvements in battery life, charging times and other technological challenges currently plaguing electric cars.

Until I can drive from Connecticut to Florida without having to stop for an extended period to charge up – assuming I can be sure of finding charging stations at all – electric cars will remain a niche product for commuters. Private drivers will not be running at 140 mph, of course, but improvements to battery life could lead to real extensions in range. This alone won’t solve all the barriers to wider adoption of purely electric cars; price and ease of charging are also hurdles for many potential drivers. But it would represent a great start.

There are seven more races to go in the third season of Formula E competition. Despite some early skepticism, the sport appears to be building momentum. With any luck, drivers as well as race fans will enjoy its benefits for years to come.

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