Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Will technical problems doom Formula E before it ever launches?

The Formula E electric car racing series may be doomed before it launches.  Or maybe not.  Over on they're claiming that Formula E is doomed because the organizers are not organizing a racing series, but are making poor choices based on marketing goals, and have created technical flaws.  I'm not sure I buy all the reasoning, but it's an interesting argument.

First point is the chassis, which follows the Formula 1 styling.  The problem is that this chassis design is very nonaerodynamic.  The car is all wheels hanging out in mid air, various grooves and wings and whatnot, all of which add to drag.  Maybe it should be more aerodynamic like, oh, say:

That's the 2012 Audi entry in the World Endurance Championship.  But Formula E wanted to tie onto the FIA Formula 1 series, ..etc.. marketing goals in other words.

The problem with this is the extra drag consumes more energy.  And in electric vehicles, consuming more energy means a shorter racing time.  The Formula E races as designed will last for 25 minutes per segment, with riders switching cars halfway through.  If the Formula E race cars didn't waste so much energy the segments could be longer and and perhaps the overall race could be longer as well.

Or perhaps they could hold a reasonably long race without having to switch cars halfway through?

The need to switch cars means the cost of launching the Formula E is much higher because each team has to be provided with four cars - two cars per driver.  If they could work it out so there's one car per driver, Formula E's cost structure would be that much lower, or perhaps they could have more drivers in the races.

Summary:  Poor aerodynamics means more energy consumption means shorter race time means two cars per driver in order to have a satisfyingly long race.

There's a couple more issues raised on ...

The decision to race in city centers means the organizers will build temporary tracks using concrete barriers.  The last point is important because these racers will crash, and the use of concrete barriers will cause more damage to the cars than will something like the generous sand pits and tire walls present at modern race tracks.  More damage means more expense, and bigger likelihood of driver injury.

Having the race split into multiple segments perhaps sends the wrong signal.  The format is 25 minutes of racing in one car, then switch to a second car.  But, because that gives 45-50 minutes of racing for what is supposed to be a 60 minute race, the first car needs to be fast charged and the driver switch cars another time.

Gets us back to wishing they'd chosen a more efficient car style.  But the bigger question is whether all this switching of cars sends the right signal.  We want electric racing because it means gear heads will see something other than internal combustion racing.  But, when the car goes for 25 minutes and has to be swapped for a second car, and later the driver swaps again for the first car, does that send a good signal to the audience?

Depends on how it's spun.  Gas powered race cars have to go into the pit to refuel and get new tires, right?  Isn't this about the same?  It would be better optics if it were the same car and you could quickly refuel it, but at the current stage of things EV's can't be refueled in the minute or two it takes to swap tires, unlike gasoline cars. 

In theory they could have worked out a fast battery pack exchange system (this has been done in electric racing before) the obvious partner for that (Better Place) went bankrupt a couple months before.

Another technical flaw is the need to fast charge the pack on the first car.  The driver is going to race for 25 minutes, then switch cars, meaning that between the two cars he'll have 45-50 minutes of racing time.  But the race is supposed to last for an hour.  The solution is to fast charge the first car.  But will they be able to fast charge the car fast enough for it to race again in 20-25 minutes?  And where will the power come from to handle simultaneous fast charging of 20 race cars?

That last point isn't quite as bad as makes it out to be.  In a city center there is plenty of power on the grid, especially on a weekend.  The question is whether the power can be delivered correctly and safely in the paddock.  They'll probably have to build the equivalent of a small substation near the paddock.

By the way, this is an issue which will have to be solved at race tracks before electric racing really takes off.  All the tracks I've been to have had weak electricity infrastructure at the pit lane, and in the paddock area.  As a result there is often lots of diesel generators humming away, even at the electric races I've been to.  Fast charging electric race vehicles will require lots of electricity, which the tracks just aren't built to handle at this time.  Fortunately race tracks tend to have lots of open land on which to build solar farms or wind farms which would mitigate electricity needs, as well as give the track a secondary income stream.

In any case - I know from previous reading that the agreement between Formula E and the host city includes all kinds of ancillary services and I'm confident power supply from the local utility was included in the agreements.  I don't think they'll have to bring along diesel generators to power everything, as the writer suggests.  If they do, however, it will look very bad and they'll deserve every ounce of failure they reap.

Will all this doom Formula E?   I don't think it's as bad as suggests.  The main problem IS whether the Formula E organizers will be able to put together a full day of festivities that are interesting enough that fans pay enough for tickets to make the whole business work out.  We don't know what the full slate of activities will entail.  And it may well be that the problems he states will interfere with fan enjoyment, and it will never catch on.


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