2015's Top Ten Tech Cars: Formula E Spark-Renault SRT_01E
Photo: FIA

Video: FIA Formula E Championship

Better batteries, better electric vehicles, and a pox on fossil fuel: That’s the ethos of Formula E, a revolutionary international race series and test bed for potential EV technology for the street. This year’s 10-race series began in Beijing and will conclude in London in June. Backers are convinced that validating electric performance in harsh race conditions can spin off benefits—greater energy density, shorter charging times, new battery chemistries—to street EVs.

Governed by Formula One’s sanctioning body, the single-spec Formula E car is designed and built by a who’s who of racing heavyweights. McLaren Electronic Systems created the AC “motor-generator unit,” with a maximum 200 kilowatts (268 horsepower) and a roughly 3.0-second sprint from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). A driver-operated “push to pass” feature delivers temporary bursts of an additional 67 kW (90 hp).

Italy’s Dallara built the carbon-fiber-and-aluminum honeycomb chassis. Williams Advanced Engineering, which helped introduce KERS (kinetic energy recovery systems) to F1, designed in just six months what it calls one of the most sophisticated traction batteries in history. Limited to 200 kilograms (441 pounds), the liquid-cooled, lithium-ion Rechargeable Energy Storage System passed the same ultrarigorous fire and impact standards of F1 components.

Power train: Rechargeable Energy Storage System (RESS) with maximum 200 kW (268 hp)

Formula E rules say the battery can deliver no more than 28 kilowatt-hours of juice per race, or less energy than in 1 gallon of gasoline. Speeds are limited to 225 km/h to conserve that energy, but there’s no recharging during the event: Instead, each driver needs two cars to finish the 1-hour race, “refueling” by jumping from a depleted racer into a fully charged car in the pits.

Prior to January’s Buenos Aires event, Marco Andretti, the IndyCar driver and the third generation of the famous racing clan, told IEEE Spectrum that he was eager for his first electron-aided competition: “I’m going in cold turkey, which I always like. I’ll drive anything with wheels on it.” Earlier races in Beijing and Malaysia were exciting and closely contested, with wrecks and even controversy: As with the much-reviled, four-cylinder F1 cars, fans grouse that the eerily silent Spark-Renaults take the ear-splitting joy out of racing. Backers considered adding artificial, synthesized engine sounds, but rejected that idea because it would add weight.

Andretti counts himself “a big critic” of wimpy-whiny F1 cars, but he has decided to cut Formula E some slack. “I’m all about the sound as well. But I think fans have to get over that hump and look forward. Being more green is the key here, and it’s unbelievable what they’ve been able to do.”

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