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Formula E Improves BMW’s Production EVs

BMW recently invited media to check out its Formula E Media Guide, and it had a lot of interesting information. While we don’t typically cover a lot of racing at CleanTechnica (this is something we should do more of), the guide had a lot of fascinating information about not only the Formula E vehicles, but how they’ve led to better production EVs from the company.

The Formula E Cars

In Formula E, the teams all use the same battery packs to keep things competitive. All teams thus have the same amount of energy, so nobody gets a range advantage over the others. They also can only put out so much power, so nobody’s car is more powerful than the others.

That doesn’t mean that a team can’t have a better car than the others, because they still build their own drivetrains. The more efficient the motor and other parts are, the more good they can get out of that battery pack. This gives every team’s engineers a big challenge, and BMW has been putting a lot of work over the last few years to max out its team’s abilities.

A screenshot from BMW’s Formula E media guide. Provided by BMW.

To say that BMW puts a lot of time, effort, and money into this would be an understatement. The cars look pretty barebones on the outside, but teams spend over $3 million building them. With basically no luxury features, it basically all goes into performance and safety. They use exotic materials and use other methods to get weights down and power output (compared to what’s going into the electric motor) high. Running at high RPMs and at high output, the whole system needs a lot of cooling, which also needs to be kept as compact and lightweight as possible. Electronics also need to be kept to the highest possible efficiency while being robust enough to not fail under the high loads they’re sustaining on the track.

Compared to the BMW i3’s drivetrain, the compan’s newest Formula E drivetrains are 50% lighter, 66% smaller, have double the torque density, and 50% greater efficiency. Performance is double the i3, and energy density is 300% better, while it can turn twice as fast. All of this is pretty impressive when you consider that the i3, while funny looking, was no slouchy eco car.

Translating This To The Road

If you were to swap out the i3’s drive unit for one from the Formula E’s car (and make it work properly), you’d have not only greater performance, but greater efficiency and range, even with the normal battery pack. Output might not be as high with the stock i3 pack, but you’d definitely get the efficiency advantages.

Of course, that drive unit is prohibitively expensive, and nobody would be insane enough to put something so expensive in the funky little i3, but that doesn’t mean that much cheaper road vehicles don’t benefit from BMW’s expensive (at least on a per-vehicle basis) racing efforts, and vice versa. Over the history of the Formula E program, innovations and knowledge from racing have been trickling their way into BMW’s EVs, while knowledge from road car engineers has also been shared with the racing engineers.

Control software for electric motors, which controls the motor after the inverter, is used in the Formula E car, and also in the i3, Mini Cooper SE, iX3, and also in the upcoming iX and i4. Energy management techniques, both in and out of software, have been taken from the Formula E cars and used in road cars.

Formula E has also been a great place to test technologies. When racing at this level, anything being used is going to take a beating in ways that the road cars almost never will. Knowing what the limits are in terms of cooling or metal parts simply snapping apart under the stress, is all valuable knowledge that gets used when designing road EVs.

For the future, BMW already has technology from the track that will eventually get put in the road cars. Silicon carbide inverter technology, high-powered transmissions, and 800 volt systems all got figured out for the track.

Packaging experience also translates directly to the road. Fitting everything in a small space for the track will enable future EVs to have a lot more space and utility.

The guide goes on to discuss the current season, who will be on the teams, etc., but I’ll save some of that for future articles. The guide also covers its electric pace cars, which is very interesting, but it’s something I’ve covered here recently, so I’ll just direct you to look at that other article. Here’s a cool picture of the pace cars, medical car, and emergency car, though!

Racing Has Always Been Feeding Road Vehicle Tech

Technologies coming from the race world and onto the streets is nothing new. It’s been happening since the 19th century.

Things that save our lives, like crumple zones, mirrors, better tires, and even efficiency improvements all came from the racetrack. Racing might seem wasteful, environmentally unfriendly, or even silly to many people, but the technologies have improved the environment and saved thousands of lives. If anything, we’ve been dumb in that we don’t adopt more technologies from racing for the street, like four and five point harnesses.

Other Manufacturers Do This, Too

Formula E currently has 12 teams and 24 drivers. Among them, we see Audi, DS Automobiles, Jaguar, Mahindra, Mercedes, NIO, Nissan, and Porsche.

You can bet that these other manufacturers are all doing what BMW is doing. They wouldn’t plop down all of the cash it takes to run a Formula E team and then not take the new technologies home and use them for EVs on the street. This is clearly a global thing, as we see teams from China, India, Europe, and the US all pushing the state of the art forward.

BMW did point out that it feels like they’ve gotten about all out of it that they could unless the race changes in the future, and it is not the only one looking for other racing opportunities to keep growing. For example, Audi is going to switch its racing teams to running the Dakar Rally in 2022, with a beefy off-road series hybrid (because there aren’t any charging stations).

It’s good to see that racing is going to be alive and well even as things trend toward electric.

Featured image provided by BMW.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to explore the Southwest US with her partner, kids, and animals. Follow her on Twitter for her latest articles and other random things:


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