They say – well, William Gibson said – that the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed. In the case of electric cars, if you want to catch an early-access glimpse of tomorrow, get yourself to a Formula E circuit, where powerful, efficient vehicles are making a powerful statement rather efficiently. Namely, that the internal combustion engine will soon be a relic of the past.
Formula E has only been going since 2014. In that time, the all-electric championship has developed, not only as a spectacular motorsport, but also as a technology demonstrator for the possibilities of battery-powered vehicles, with genuine crossover potential for electric road cars. It’s also a showcase of just how quickly the underlying technology is advancing.
“It’s rapidly evolving,” says Dr Chris Vagg, an automotive engineer at the University of Bath who was integral to the development of Formula E’s electric powertrain. “When you look back at the Gen1 car from 2014, which was only seven years ago, it seems a million miles away from what we have now. The specs we’re driving now [in Gen2] and especially in Gen3 are mind-boggling really.”
In Formula E, much of the car’s design is standardised across the competition, meaning one team can’t out-develop the rest in terms of raw performance. The jump from the Gen1 car to Gen2 introduced more power, greater speed and huge improvements in efficiency, and now the future is in sight once again.
Formula E’s Gen3 car will make its debut in 2022 during the sport’s ninth season. Power levels will climb another 100kW to 350kW, which will mark a significant increase in speed. Especially since the new battery (and the whole car) will be lighter.
“Top speed is directly proportional to power,” says Mark Preston, team principal DS TECHEETAH, which won back-to-back team championships in 2018/19 and 2019/20. Their driver António Félix da Costa is the current Formula E reigning champion.
“That’s why in F1, if you have more power than somebody else, can carry a higher top speed or more drag, which means more downforce. That’s the problem in F1, because the peak power can vary for each team. One thing that’s great about Formula E is, because we cap power in terms of the battery, it means that in theory everyone’s got the same top speed. So going from 350kW from 250kW will naturally bring its own speed increases.”
Another Gen3 development is that regenerative capabilities will be allowed on both the front and rear wheels for the first time and flash-charging technology will also introduce traditional pit stops to the championship. This will significantly change race strategy, perhaps with drivers encouraged to go for more flat-out performance than they are currently able to.
“Four-wheel energy recovery is going to be really interesting,” says Vagg. “At the moment, there’s only an electric motor on the rear axle and so your electric drive and electric braking happen on the rear. On the front axle, you only have hydraulic brakes. From Gen3, that front motor is going to recover a significant amount of energy so they can increase the power of the vehicle without making the battery much bigger.”
It’s all about efficiency, says Preston. “You’ve got 350kW regen from the rear, 150kW from the front. That’s 500kW regen into the battery, which is pretty incredible because that’s equivalent to a 500kW ultra-fast charger, and I don’t think any of those exist right now.”
The drive for efficiency is what the sport is really all about. It will continue beyond Gen3, creating batteries that store more power and electric drivetrains that convert it into raw performance with as little wastage as possible.
Vagg points to an advanced semiconductor called gallium nitride, which could be used in the car’s inverter to minimise the loss of energy. “Those will reach motorsport first because of the cost of them.”
Innovation will also come in the car’s bodywork with new sustainable materials potentially making carbon-fibre redundant. “One of the classic criticisms of carbon fibre is that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to recycle,” says Vagg. “The big culprit is often said to be wind turbine blades because you end up with these huge blades ending up in landfill.”
One of the interesting technologies emerging to replace carbon fibre is natural fibre composites. “They have fibres which are glued together in a resin but instead of using strands of carbon, they’re using strands of natural fibres like hemp or flax which naturally biodegrade in time. Some teams have already experimented with them.”
It’s another example of Formula E stress-testing technologies and creating efficiencies that could inform the design of electric road cars. With the sale of new petrol and diesel cars due to be banned in the UK from 2030, the gains made in Formula E will benefit us all.
“Everything is focused on the future and how we showcase electric technology,” says Preston. “I talked to a couple of car manufacturers and said to them, ‘If I told you in season two that you would ever get this far in terms of powertrain efficiencies, would you believe where we are today?’ They said no.
“Is that technology in road cars yet? No, automotive is great at reducing the costs of new technology. It won’t be the exact component that goes from the racecar to the road but it will guide the whole thing.”