Racing improves the breed. That’s the theory behind motor racing, anyway. Back in the day, tires ruptured, brakes failed, engines overheated, and transmissions locked up with distressing regularity. Subjecting cars to the rigors of competition led to improvements in all those categories, plus many more. The turbocharger that is standard equipment on many production cars today was once an exotic way to boost the power of racing engines.
Swiss technology company ABB is a title sponsor of Formula E, the electric racing series patterned after Formula One. Recently, Frank Muehlon, head of e-mobility infrastructure solutions for the company, sat down with Forbes contributor Alistair Charlton to talk about battery and charging technology and how rapidly they have advanced in a few short years.
“Things have accelerated for sure,” Muehlon says. “When we started in 2012 I think no one was expecting 350 kW chargers or six of them together at a 2 MW charging site. I think this was far away from even dreaming.” At that time, charge rates of 3.6 or 7.2 kilowatts were the norm. But DC fast chargers like those offered by Ionity in Europe and Electrify America in the US can now charge at up to 350 kW. “If in 2012 you had shown someone a 350kW charger, I’m not sure what they would have called you,” Muehlon adds.
Higher Voltage, Higher Charge Rates
Fast charging is facilitated by 800 volt electrical systems like the ones appearing on some premium EV such as the Porsche Taycan. The majority of electric cars available today operate on 400 volt systems. “Right now there are cost implications because of the economies of scale,” Muehlon says. “The components are all available on the market for 400 volt, but not so much for 800 volt. So if you go for 800, you have to put more safety measures in place and you tap into a supplier base with less economies of scale and that results in higher price tags.
“However, the advantages are pretty clear. If you go for a higher voltage instead of current, you have a lot of savings in terms of weight and fewer efficiency losses. It makes a lot of sense, but for now it’s more in the premium segment. But there are enough OEMs looking into it and I’m confident that a couple of years down the road we’ll see more and more go to 800 volts.”
Muehlon next turned to solid state batteries. “I think it’s pretty clear that the battery is really the biggest challenge of the EV sector and it will remain so. Solid state, yes, that’s something everyone is talking about and we’ve seen prototypes. But we haven’t seen mass produced solid state batteries yet. There’s a few guys out there saying give it another year, and others saying to give it another decade.”
Formula One Is So Over
“Looking at the green energy and the environmental push we see from society, Formula One becomes more and more outdated and more and more a relic of the past,” Muehlon says. “In that sense, Formula E is pointing in the right direction. Initially people were laughing about it, asking can these cars really endure a whole race. But look at it now, we have better technology to survive a whole race, and we have all the car manufacturers in there which were before in F1.”
Originally, Formula E drivers had to change cars halfway through each 45-minute race because they ran out of battery power after about 25 minutes. That’s what Muehlon is talking about when he says people were laughing at the idea of electric car racing. But the second generation cars that debuted in 2018 can complete an entire 45-minute race without stopping. What that means is that battery capacity has doubled in 4 short years.
But Formula One races last 2 hours. It there a possibility that in-race recharging will ever become part of electric car racing? “There are discussions about that, absolutely, but we haven’t finalized it yet because you have to look at what you want to bring to a race. Do you want to bring excitement, or technology which you can also use in the real world? If you just do technology to create excitement, but never use it in reality, that’s not what we want to do. If you find something that can close the gap and use Formula E as a proving ground, then yes.”
Formula One has used technology to suck the life out of the racing. It’s all very nice for the teams and the drivers, but for those in the stands or watching on television, a Formula One race has about as much suspense as a Hardy Boys mystery. Hopefully Formula E will learn from Formula One’s mistakes and keep the excitement level high even as the quest for improvements in technology continues.
“The ABB FIA Formula E Championship is more than a race — it is our test bed for innovative electromobility technologies, which can contribute to lowering our carbon footprint and contribute to a better world in the future,” says Peter Voser, CEO of ABB. In this case, racing is very definitely improving the breed.
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