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3 Races Make Clear How Fast Electrics Are Improving

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In 2012 and 2013, electric vehicles saw a tipping point in terms of performance. That’s when they started winning or becoming seriously competitive in multiple different international competitions, after only 1–3 years of experience compared to decades for the gas competitors. It’s worth looking at the history of three of these competitions and the internal combustion vehicle rate of improvement vs the rate of improvement of electric vehicles.

What are the competitions we’ll look at for this purpose?

Isle of Mann TTmountaincourse1990_Present gif

Isle of Mann is internationally known as one of the most insane racing events in the world, where the best motorcycle racers in the world go to scare themselves silly and die at a rate of about two racers a year. Started in 1907, in 1911 it put in place (roughly) the current course of 37.73 miles on public roads that are closed off for the events. Roads were mostly fully paved before WWII. In 2009, it added an electric motorcycle category, making it really official. Prize money was added in 2010.

Pike’s Peak International Hill ClimbScreen Shot 2016-06-27 at 3.36.43 PM

Pike’s Peak also has a 100 year history, with its centenary race this year (2016). It is differently scary, climbing just under 5,000 feet in 12.42 miles with 156 turns. It’s been fully paved since 2012, but started out mostly on dirt roads. Electric cars and bikes started competing there in 2011.

Formula Studentevent_scoring_en

This international competition sees student teams from 30 countries and 130 universities compete with their cars in multiple categories to achieve best overall car. They have to be best across quickest acceleration, skid pad, autocross, and cost-to-build categories, among others. Electric cars were included in 2010 in a separate class.

The clip above is of one of the competitors hitting 100 kilometres per hour (a bit over 62 miles per hour) in 1.513 seconds. Yes, a second and a half.

So, how fast are things improving?

Isle of Mann TT

Gas bikes have improved steadily in terms of average lap speed and of course lap time. The early improvements from 1920 to 1938 had a lot to do with paving the course. Since then, they’ve averaged about 0.6% improvement in terms of performance annually.

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 11.21.00 AM

Electric bikes at Isle of Man started in 2009 with speeds about the same as what gas bikes achieved in 1952. They’ve improved as much in 7 years as gas bikes did in 37 years. They’ve averaged about a 7% year-over-year gain.

To be fair, the last three years have seen relatively flat performance from electrics, so it’s unclear if the trend will continue. Also electric bikes are still running only one lap as opposed to the gas bikes’ five laps, so this isn’t apples-to-apples yet, but it is illustrative of the rapidity of improvement of the technology.

Pretty soon, we’ll be seeing competitive numbers for Isle of Mann.

Pike’s Peak

This race is a special case where electric vehicles have two serious advantages. The first is that it’s short, only 12.42 miles (about 20 km). The second is the serious increase in elevation from altitude-sickness levels to higher: where internal combustion engines have challenges with the differences in oxygen for combustion, electrics just ignore oxygen altogether.

Remember, electrics only started competing there in 2011. Chip Yates rode his motorcycle to the top in a time that would have placed him 5th in the 1205 cc division and 6th place in the 750 cc division. The electric car competitor was well off the best pace with a time of 12:20. That’s the first year.

In 2013, two years after electrics started racing at Pike’s Peak, Lightning’s electric motorcycle won overall over all gas and electric bikes with a time of 10:01.

In 2015, both first and second place were taken by electric cars.

To be fair, the fastest time ever was set by a gas car in an absolutely insane run of 8:13 in 2013, but electrics are dominating, and when that record falls, it probably won’t be to another gas car.

In qualifying, electrics were dominating both in the motorcycle and car classes. In the actual race, results were mixed, but electrics definitely were a dominant force again this year.

model-s-pike-peak-e1466990061727A Tesla Model S — race-prepped mostly by having its excess seats removed, a roll-cage bolted in, and its battery packs chilled with ice until just before race time — broke the previous production record by a good minute at 11:48 minutes. That’s 32 seconds or 4% faster than the ultra-light, completely custom-built, electric hill climb car achieved in 2011. A production sedan weighing 4500 pounds and capable of seating seven if you put all the seats in is faster than a custom electric race car of five years ago.

The overall winner was gas powered in 2016, but won by only 5.5 seconds, and both times were under 9 minutes. Not only that, the winner was the only gas car in the top three and the third-place car was an electric NSX, close to a production car.

In the bike categories, the electric vs gas story was very similar, with the electric just under five seconds behind the winning gas bike. Both were slower than the electric-winning pace in 2013 by 10 to 20 seconds, but that competitor, Lightning, hasn’t returned to Pike’s Peak since, and the fastest electric bike this year is much closer to a production bike.

Given the speed of improvement in electrics, you probably won’t win Pike’s Peak with gas cars or bikes after this year. The trend is heading closer and closer to production electric vehicles that are race prepped as the most competitive. Personally, I’m very excited to see what Tesla’s 2019 Roadster will do. I suspect it will be sub-10 minutes in factory-delivered mode.

Formula Student

This is where it gets real. The other categories see teams spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their race toys. Formula Student has student-level budgets and contestants get marked partly on how little they spend.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 5.15.24 PMRemember that electrics ran in their own classes in 2010, when they were introduced. Well, in 2013, an electric car won overall. And then a different electric car from a different university won in 2014 and 2015 overall. And the top winning cars in July of 2016 are set to be electric as well, including that nifty 1.513 seconds to 100 km/h number in the video above.

Basically, you can’t win Formula Student with gas cars anymore, and the students emerging from the programs that build those cars are the future generation of global manufacturers’ engineers.

It’s probably worth mentioning Nurburgring here too, just in passing. Its time in the sun as one of the pre-eminent tests of — mostly production — car performance and bragging rights is over now that it has banned record attempts after the 2015 fatal crash that killed a spectator. But even before then, electric cars were improving rapidly. A typical electric car skeptic will point out that Teslas can’t make it around the circuit without overheating and slowing down. However, the fastest car on the circuit is a Porsche 918 Spyder, which is of course a plug-in hybrid (and costs about $900,000 USD). And other electric cars were already under 8 minutes and dropping fast. As the Pike’s Peak and Formula Student results show, if someone were to build a Nurburgring-specific electric car, it would probably dominate until you got into several-hundred-thousand-dollar vehicles. In fact, you could probably take one of the Pike’s Peak cars there today and get close to the record lap time.

Nature-EV-Battery-Prices-Cheaper-than-2020-ProjectionsThese improvements are coming so rapidly in part because battery cost to performance ratio is improving at an enormous rate, similar to the rapidity of the drop in the price of solar power. But motor and controller technology is evolving rapidly as well. A large group of the 2009 Isle of Mann electric contingent were powered by Agni motors, but now none are. Electric controller technology is improving by leaps and bounds as well, with Tesla’s over-the-air performance updates and Ludicrous Mode as merely the most visible aspects. Zero Motorcycles had overheating problems in the past but have optimized their power delivery system to avoid that as well, helping the bikes continue to perform even on the very challenging Pike’s Peak race.

In two of three major international competitions, electrics now dominate after only a few years of competing against gas vehicles, which have over a century of racing development. It’s not going to be long before Isle of Mann is both faster and quieter, and the people who insist on bringing gas bikes are going to be the quaint ones. For a sense of how fast things are changing, the documentary Charge from the 2009 and 2010 races is well worth watching.

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is a member of the Advisory Boards of electric aviation startup FLIMAX, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.


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