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Legacy Automakers Turn To Formula E As A Laboratory For EV Technology

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Legacy automakers are hungry to create an even electric vehicle (EV) playing field with all-electric companies like Tesla and BYD. As a result, many automakers are looking to Formula E racing, which offers a competitive venue for research and development and which has the potential to transfer data results to automakers’ mass production models.

The all-electric racing series is an interesting match for these traditionally internal combustion engine (ICE)-focused manufacturers, as Formula E is the first sport in the world to be Net Zero Carbon since inception. It’s a series with 16 races, 10 world cities, 4 continents, and the GEN3 – the world’s most efficient race car.

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The Problem: Legacy automakers need to rethink their R&D in order to accelerate their battery electric divisions.

The Solution: They’re turning to the Formula E electric racing series as a laboratory for electric mobility. The series gives manufacturers a competitive platform to test and develop the latest in EV technology. The carbon footprint of the GEN3 has been measured from the beginning of the design phase to inform all measures taken to reduce environmental impact, while all unavoidable emissions are offset as part of Formula E’s net zero carbon commitment.

What Do Legacy Automakers Hope to Accomplish? They’re striving for software innovation to build better mass production EVs with enhanced performance, greater range, and higher efficiency, as summarized in a recent Reuters article. The latest advances in motorsports have a high percentage of translating in an optimized way to mass market models and may eventually lower EV prices for consumers. Manufacturers “definitely see … Formula E as a laboratory to test technologies,” according to Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, who adds that fast charging is a key area where teams have made progress.

The Efficiency Quotient: Legacy automakers who have joined Formula E as manufacturers are particularly interested in regenerating power. Because electric racing cars start each race with only 60% of the battery capacity they need and have to generate the rest through braking, they are innovators in efficiency.

The Key is in the Inverters: The inverter is the brain of the electric race car system. It is responsible for converting the direct current taken from the battery into a high density alternating current that’s sent to the engine.

How has Formula E Evolved? Season 9 saw Formula E’s third great leap with the all-new GEN3 car, previewed and launched at the 2022 Monaco E-Prix. The new GEN3 is lighter, smaller, faster, and more sustainable than what came before. It incorporates a number of features set to inspire and inform major automotive manufacturers toward their next moves in the consumer car market while modeling how compromise doesn’t need to be seen as foremost in an electric racing car.

What’s Next in Formula E? “GEN3 brings a host of innovations, but we’re committed to going a step beyond. We’re already thinking of the evolution we can bring through the 4-year cycle,” explains FIA technical manager and GEN3 project lead Alessandra Ciliberti.

“We’re investigating using the front powertrain kit in traction as well as regen to allow for four-wheel drive-in specific scenarios and then looking even further to GEN4 we have to ensure Formula E remains at the forefront as the laboratory for future mobility. We will work through and understand the challenges the manufacturers face from a technical perspective to make sure it remains the perfect platform for them.”

Which Manufacturers are Involved with Formula E?

  • As an official manufacturer team in Formula E, Jaguar TCS Racing designs its own powertrain, which includes the motor, transmission, inverter, and rear suspension. Its website states, “To control costs, the carbon fibre chassis and battery are common components and the same for all eleven teams. This allows the focus to be on developing efficient and lightweight electric vehicle powertrains which will improve the performance and range of future Jaguar Land Rover electric vehicles.”
  • The Nissan Formula E Team has set the following objectives for consistent environmental management: formalize a company-wide approach to integrated environmental management according to FIA Environmental Management Accreditation requirements; adopt circular economy concepts and efficient use of resources in all company activities from the design to operations; nurture an environmental culture in the team, partners, sponsors, and suppliers; and, ensure progress towards carbon neutrality.
  • Porsche Formula E has reassigned two Formula E program top engineers to road models in the last year. Michael Steiner, member of the executive board for Research and Development, Porsche AG, described the connection between their Formula E investment and road models.

“We remain convinced that our presence and successes in Formula E will lay the foundation for future mobility solutions. It provides the most competitive environment to accelerate the development of high-performance vehicles with a focus on environmental friendliness and energy efficiency. We want to bring innovative technologies and more sustainability to motorsport and be at the forefront of new developments.”

  • Stellantis sees motorsport forming “the best tool to accelerate technology transfer from track to road,” so the brand created its competition arm – DS Performance and is applying its DS to its other 13 brands to accelerate EV development. The DS Gen3 (DS E-TENSE FE23) is a more powerful ride than its predecessors with 350 kW generated from its 4 regenerative wheels. A new front drivetrain adds an extra 250 kW to the 350 kW at the rear, doubling the regenerative capacity from the previous Gen2 car to a total of 600 kW, and, with the addition of the front drivetrain, this single seater is the first racing drive from the manufacturer without hydraulic rear brakes.

Which Manufacturers have Come and Gone from Formula E? BMW left Formula E in 2021, looking for other opportunities for technology transfer. Mercedes also redirected its all-electric R&D out of Formula E and is focusing its sustainability efforts on its F1 team. Ford is returning to F1 racing in 2026, partly as a platform for EV development.

Why isn’t the Formula E Series More Popular? The all-electric racing series is often compared to Formula One, with its sustained power and ICE sound (the latter of which is a lot quieter than a decade ago — you know what I’m talking about if you’ve been to F1 races over the years). The Netflix’ reality series about Formula One, Drive to Survive, has made the sport soar in popularity in the US; it captures the spectacle of F1 rather than its tremendous, negative environmental impact. Formula E Unplugged is now on YouTube and is attempting to capture some of the same fervor and broaden its audience appeal, especially in the US, while demonstrating the promise of zero emissions racing and transportation.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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