Last September, Formula E racing kicked off its inaugural season; the racing competition is visiting cities across the globe, and comes to California on 4 April, with Round 6 at Long Beach. The organizers have high hopes that these races will not only be fun to watch, but will do good things for electric car technology, the racing business, and society as a whole.
That’s what Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, the company running the races under the umbrella of the FIA (the international motorsports association that also overseas the Formula 1 races), says. Speaking in March at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Agag talked about how this whole thing got started—and why the technology in the cars is about to get a lot more interesting.
The all-electric Formula E series of races kicked off in Beijing. For this first season, the championship’s 10 teams are competing in 11 races held in the heart of 10 cities, including Berlin, London, Miami, and Moscow.
As per the organization’s media kit, the official goal of the Formula E effort is to serve “as a framework for R&D around the electric vehicle, accelerating general interest in these cars and promoting sustainability.” But for Agag, the most exciting thing about the races is the potential of the sport to accelerate the development of electric car technology and to draw new fans to racing in general. (Like many Silicon Valley companies, the project started during a dinner table discussion, with notes sketched out on a napkin—Agag says he unfortunately lost the napkin.)
Figuring out the rules was a bit tricky; the Formula E organizers couldn’t just duplicate the procedures established to govern gas-powered vehicles for an electric race. For example, it’s a lot harder to swap a battery than it is to refuel. And, because the batteries used in racecars have to discharge energy quickly in order to make the cars fast, they don’t last long at all, just half an hour, Agag said. Initially, organizers thought they might allow teams to do a battery swap in a pit stop. However, rules about how a battery needs to be encased to keep it from endangering the driver in a high-speed crash mean that swapping a battery takes about two hours. That’s a long pit stop, especially when the organizers wanted each race to be a roughly one-hour event. So, instead, Formula E drivers are simply swapping cars halfway through the race. This isn’t as odd as it seems; Agag pointed out that in the 1950s, a Formula 1 driver experiencing mechanical problems was allowed to take a team member’s car.
Formula E teams are currently constrained in terms of the technology they can use—they race using a standard car, with standard components, and tight controls that ensure every car starts out with the same available energy in each battery. The organizers, says Agag, do want the teams to eventually compete on technology development as well as racing strategy, because such competition drives breakthroughs. However, he said, to keep the costs of participation reasonable, there have to be some initial constraints (by reasonable he means in the $20 million a season range, vs. $200 million and up).
“If you open the door to [unlimited] technology development, an engineer will spend every single dollar he can get,” Agag says.
These essentially identical vehicles have chassis made by Dallara, batteries by Williams, and engine control units by McLaren Electronics. The cars go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in three seconds, and have a maximum speed of 140 mph. Designing this standard car cost about $10 million, Agag reported; each car costs about $500,000 to build.
Photo: Tekla Perry Alejandro Agag (right) discusses the creation of the Formula E racing series with the Computer History Museum's John Hollar
In future seasons, race organizers will begin allowing teams to change the technologies used in the car; in season two they will be allowed to tweak the energy regeneration systems (involving the brakes and motors), in years three and four they will also be allowed to opt for different battery designs. By year five, the hope is that the advance of technology will have improved the batteries enough so that only one car will be needed, eliminating the swap.
The race organizers have also put limits on the telemetry between the cars and the pit crews, though technically the cars could constantly send out detailed reports about all sorts of things. The crews, for example, cannot see the readings of battery life remaining, though that information is available to the driver. That puts the task of energy management more squarely on the driver, and, particularly in this first season in which teams are using identical cars, energy management is, well, just about everything.
“The guy that wins the race is not the fastest guy, it’s the most clever guy who knows how to manage energy,” said Agag.
Because the intent is to showcase cars that are truly environmental friendly, not just electric, the organizers, Agag said, felt the cars couldn’t use coal or other greenhouse-gas emitting forms of power for charging. But given the races are moving around the world, organizers couldn’t count on getting green power from the local grid. Portable solar panels, he said, just don’t generate energy quickly enough. So the organizers are carting their own electric generators from race site to race site—and powering them with glycerin made from sea algae.
The organizers are also experimenting with wireless charging; while the actual race vehicles plug into chargers, the safety and rescue vehicles that stand ready to rush onto the course sit on wireless charging mats, so they can stay fully charged and yet move quickly without the need to unplug them first.
Formula E is also working to keep the public interested. The main thing, Agag says, is the plan to run the races through the centers of cities to bring them close to potential fans. And in order to draw the youngest fans, before the races, the Formula E organizers send electric car kits to local schools; students build the cars, select a driver, and the student races take place before the main race.
Additionally, in an interesting application of social media, Formula E asks fans to vote for their favorite drivers; the three top vote getters receive a “FanBoost,” that is, for 5 seconds the amount of energy the car can draw from the battery, normally limited to 150 kw, bumps up to 180 kw. In a tight race, that could be enough for a second place car to overtake the driver. Right now, voting cuts off ten minutes before the race starts, so drivers know whether or not they are getting the boost; Agag would like to see the cutoff eventually extend into at least the first part of the race itself to keep the fans more involved.
Agag says organizers also hope to engage fans by making all the data cars send to the pit crews available online and accesible through a mobile app. And while today that information just includes car data, eventually it may include information about the driver. “We are testing sensors on drivers measuring heartbeat, stress level, and other things,” Agag says. If you are a fan you should be able to “look on your app and see how your favorite driver is feeling.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.