Since the beginning of the automobile, there has been an interesting relationship between racing and the cars we drive on the streets. In some ways, racing vehicles are quite different from street cars (depending on the type of racing, of course). In other ways, they have a lot in common. The differences have led to innovations that can’t occur in street cars alone, while the similarities have allowed street cars to benefit from the lessons learned engineering vehicles for racing.
Safety: A Historical Example
One similarity is that race drivers want safety. That doesn’t mean they expect to be as safe as someone driving by all the laws on city streets, but nobody wants to die for fun or for work. Given the more extreme conditions race cars are subjected to, they are a great platform for innovation in this area. Crumple zones were first engineered into racing cars to protect the driver, and then the engineers working on normal vehicles followed suit.
That’s why older cars fare better in wrecks than newer cars, leading many people to conclude that “they don’t make them like they used to.” The reality is that the older cars didn’t sacrifice themselves to protect the occupants, and most would agree that the occupants are more important than the car. We can replace cars, but we can’t replace people or reverse lifelong injuries.
This is just one example of how racing has improved cars for the rest of us. Safety, efficiency, comfort, and many other things have trickled down from motorsport into our daily lives. Even those of us without cars have benefited greatly, as cars get in fewer wrecks and the economic impact of lost health and productivity is lessened.
It may be tempting to think that racing with internal combustion engines (ICE) is done helping the rest of the automotive world now that electric vehicles are a growing trend, but a car’s powertrain is only part of a much larger ecosystem. Body and frame, suspension, brakes, tires, interior, glass, and everything else are still with us and absent Star Trek: Discovery style holographic craft, we are going to be dealing with these other things for a long time.
Today’s Challenge: “Weight Watchers”
At present, vehicle manufacturers are waging a war on weight to get better efficiency numbers. They can’t sacrifice too much, because cars still have to meet vehicle safety standards, so automakers are doing things like not including a spare tire (you get a repair kit instead) to shed a few pounds and get slightly better MPG or electric range. Every pound counts, and ounces make pounds.
A recent article in The Drive shows us how weight-saving innovations are continuing to happen in ICE racing. Gordon Murray Automotive recently built a three-seat supercar with a V12 engine that weighs only 2,173 pounds (985 kilos). Let’s put this in perspective: A Tesla Model 3 weighs over 3500 pounds. To get a lighter street vehicle to compare, you’d need to find an old Geo Metro (~1900 lbs), but they only came with a 1L 3-cylinder engine that sometimes couldn’t maintain highway speed with the air conditioner running, and it certainly didn’t have a transaxle that could handle 654 horsepower (which would weigh a lot more in most cases).
To have a vehicle that puts down the power of Gordon Murray’s car at under 2200 pounds is quite an achievement. To do that, you need a vehicle body that doesn’t flex too much, a powerful engine, a beefy transaxle or longitudinal drivetrain, a decent rear-end/differential, axles that won’t snap, suspension that can handle the load, and wheels/tires that can provide sufficient traction. All of those things add weight under normal circumstances.
To get the weight down, the team had to put every single component on a diet. Sometimes that meant cutting back on materials, but often it meant using composites, lightweight metals (aluminum and titanium vs steel), and making custom components optimized for weight savings. While things like the body, suspension, and drivetrain were obvious targets for removing weight, even things like the instrument cluster, pedals, and headlight assembly were re-engineered for lightness.
The team even held weekly “weight watchers” meetings, accounting for every gram of the car’s weight and looking for more savings. The headlight unit has a visible heatsink (that they made look really cool) to be 15% better at heat dissipation than any other car out there. The molecular layout in some components had to be considered, leading to the use of more expensive forging instead of casting components. Even the bolts and nuts were custom machined to save fractions of a gram, but when there are over 900 fasteners involved, the weight adds up.
Eventually, we will see all automakers copy these tricks that were first pioneered for the track, and it’s already starting to happen.
One good example is Aptera’s upcoming Aptera 3. With three wheels, a composite body, and airplane-like aerodynamics, the car comes in under 2,000 lbs (800 kilos), even with a 60 kWh battery. To put that weight in perspective, that’s half the weight of a comparably-batteried Nissan LEAF. This super light and efficient design is supposed to help the vehicle go quite a bit further on the same battery pack, with over 1,000 miles possible with 100 kWh versions of the vehicle.
While most customers don’t want to drive a stripped-out race car or something like the Aptera 3, the lessons learned will still find their way into more traditional vehicles. Even with normal shapes and interiors, lightening components all over the vehicle will save weight, and with that get better electric range.
We can count on other lessons learned (beyond weight and safety measures) to keep moving out of the racing world and onto the streets. Just look at what’s getting spent on Formula E teams, for example. While the whole efforts cost over $100M per season, the cars themselves cost millions of dollars. Nobody (well, almost nobody) wants to spend that kind of money on a street car, but the high budgets spent to get a small advantage over other teams break new ground and unlock knowledge for automakers to repeat on street cars later for cheaper.
Whether powered by internal combustion or batteries, racing will continue to give us all better safety, efficiency, and comfort for a long time to come.
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