National Geographic News
Brazilian racecar driver Lucas di Grassi drives a Formula E racecar along the Landwehrkanal in Berlin, Germany, 11 July 2013.

Brazilian racecar driver Lucas di Grassi drives a Formula E race car in Berlin, Germany, last year. The first fully electric Formula racing championship will take place this fall.

PHOTOGRAPH BY HANNIBAL HANSCKE. PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP    

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic

Published January 5, 2014

Electric cars have rounded a corner in their drive to enter the mainstream. Soon, you're going to be able to watch them race at high speeds.

The world's first fully electric Grand Prix racing series, the FIA Formula E Championship,  launches this year. It will pit single-seat electric-powered racers against one another on ten center-city street courses from Beijing to Los Angeles and Miami, from Rio de Janeiro to Monte Carlo and Berlin. (See related blog post: "How Does Electric Stack Up to Gasoline on the Race Track?")

The first public demonstration of the car that all ten teams will use, the Spark-Renault SRT_01E, is set for Monday at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. A former F1 driver, Brazilian Lucas de Grassi, the official test driver for the Formula E, will be behind the wheel of the vehicle, which was built by Spark Racing Technology together with a consortium of some of the leading motorsports manufacturers, including Dallara, McLaren, Renault, Williams, and Michelin. (See related quiz: What You Don't Know About Cars and Fuel.)

Formula E's glitz quotient ramped up substantially in recent weeks, with announcements that teams will be fielded by film star and electric drive enthusiast Leonardo DiCaprio (paired with the French luxury electric carmaker Venturi Automobiles) and by billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group. Other competitors include conventional auto racing teams, like IndyCar teams Andretti Autosport and Jay Penske's Dragon Racing, as well as squads that focus entirely on green technology, like Drayson Racing of the United Kingdom.

"The future of our planet depends on our ability to embrace fuel-efficient, clean-energy vehicles," said DiCaprio in a statement. (See related: "Pictures: Cars That Fired Our Love-Hate Relationship With Fuel.")

But race organizers also have sought to highlight an EV advantage beyond low emissions and cheap fuel. The Formula E series aims to "help make electric cars more sexy," said Formula E spokesman Tom Phillips. The electric single-seaters are expected to achieve speeds and acceleration on par with conventional racers, running at 150 miles per hour (240 kilometers per hour) and streaking from a dead stop to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 2.9 seconds, "so you'll have plenty of action," said Phillips.

Boosting the series' visibility and viability: Broadcast deals have now been signed with FOX Sports and Japan's TV Asahi, and Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck and his partners have invested a reported $21 million in the series. And electric car advocates say this is only the start. They argue that as EV technology continues to evolve and improve, the superior performance of the inherently more efficient electric motor could give traditional internal combustion engine racers a run for their money.

Of Range and Speed

Of course, you won't be seeing electric cars competing alongside internal combustion vehicles at NASCAR or Formula 1 races in the near future. Batteries that would be light enough to fit into a race car simply aren't ready to push the the vehicles fast enough, or for long enough. (Related: "Supercomputing Power Could Pave the Way to Energy-Efficient Engines.")

On street courses, EVs could become far more competitive with conventional vehicles when performing at peak, thanks to the battery-boosting benefit they enjoy from regenerative braking on the twisty tracks. But batteries light enough to keep up with combustion engines still don't last long enough.

This will all be part of the sport in the upcoming Formula E competitions. Each team will use two identical electric cars per race. Over the course of the one-hour race, drivers must make two mandatory pit stops to change cars. Phillips said that the two cars will last the race if the driver manages the battery power correctly, much as a conventional Formula 1 driver manages tire wear through the course of a race. But a driver who pits too late may run out of battery power and won't be able to finish the race. "We hope it will make for some exciting racing and some interesting team strategies," said Phillips.

For race viewers, the car-switching may serve to underscore one of the main drawbacks of current EV technology—limited range. But pit stops are part of racing from NASCAR to Formula 1, and many fans enjoy their amazing displays of precision teamwork and speed. Formula E will offer its own unique version—a 100-meter (109-yard) driver dash down the pit lane from one vehicle to the other.

While advances in batteries will be needed to improve EV range, both on the racetrack and off, today's electric car technology already can deliver surprising speed.

Experimental electric cars already have achieved sustained speeds of more than 180 mph (290 km/h.) (For comparison, in the fastest Grand Prix ever, in 2003, the winner completed the race at 153.8 mph (247.9 km/h).) And an Ohio State University student-built car known as the Buckeye Bullet holds the current world record for an electrically powered land vehicle at just a shade under 308 mph (496 km/h). (The land speed record for a wheel-driven internal combustion vehicle is a shade over 439 mph (706.5 km/h).)

"The performance side of electric driving is becoming very clear," said engineering professor Giorgio Rizzoni, lead faculty adviser to the Ohio State project, which is also backed by Venturi. "Even in a typical hybrid, for example, you can think of the electric power on board as something that might give a nice boost and make a vehicle with a smaller gasoline engine feel more like a sports car."

His students are focused on taking it a step further. "How do you push this technology to make smaller and more powerful electric drive systems?" he asked. "Most importantly, how do you extract maximum performance from the lithium-ion batteries we're using . . . pushing them to the absolute limit?"

The Electric Advantage

No design or technical advancement has supercharged the potential for electric racing like lithium-ion batteries, EV experts say. Consumers who use smartphones and tablets daily reap the benefits of untold research and development dollars spent over the past two decades. But for high-performance EVs, the payoff is power.

"We're talking about a six-to-seven-times multiple in straight automotive powertrain performance (over older lead acid batteries), all made possible by the lithium batteries," said electric car pioneer John Waters, who led the battery-pack design of the General Motors EV1 and Electric S-10 vehicles that hit U.S. highways briefly in the late 1990s. "It's the beginning of the last frontier for energy storage from what we know of the elements. Lithium is the lightest metal on the elemental chart, and just as it was applied to consumer electronics batteries in the late 1980s and 1990s we're applying it now to vehicles." (See related: "Pictures:  Seven Ingredients for Better Electric Car Batteries.")

Even the best modern batteries aren't as energy-dense as a combustion fuel like gasoline. But EVs are able to compensate for this limitation because of the inherent efficiency of the electric motor. Combustion engines simply can't compare, even with a head start of more than a century. Only about 14 percent to 26 percent of the energy from the fuel put in an internal combustion engine gas tank is used to move the car down the road. The rest of the energy is lost, mainly as heat and exhaust.

"The combustion engine is kind of a Rube Goldberg design of torque and movement that we grew up with and take for granted," Waters said. "No one on Mars, looking to design an engine for the first time, would say, 'Let's go explode a bunch of carbon chains to make a piston move up and down,' and then turn a huge, heavy thing called a crankshaft, which is then connected to a big flywheel and then connected to a transmission and then to gears that move a drive shaft and so on until eventually, a wheel and tire finally turn and a car actually starts moving."

Electric motors, by contrast, operate at efficiencies of more than 90 percent because they are far more simple and lose less energy along the way. "You store electrons in a box, which is connected by a cable to a motor that doesn't really need a differential, a complex transmission, or a crankshaft, but just a simple gearbox," Waters said.

An electric motor is instead connected to a controller, which serves as a kind of throttle that regulates how much of the always-available energy is sent to the engine at a given time when demanded by the accelerator pedal. Acceleration is snappy in many electric vehicles because torque is dependent on the electron flow from the motor. It's instantaneous, the same way a hair dryer blower motor goes from off to full spinning speed in an instant. In an EV, there is no clutch, multispeed transmission, or variable power derived from rotating shafts of a combustion engine, which can vary dramatically—as evidenced by the rpm gauge on your dashboard.

For all these reasons, Waters argues that EVs have the potential to far outshine traditional race cars in performance. "It's not black magic, it's just plain physics," he said. "And it's not really a tree-hugging conversation. In racing, it's purely about acceleration or new ways we might be able to go faster on the track." (See related "Pictures: Students Design Super-Efficient Cars in Eco-Marathon.")

Design and Build

Engineers working on high-speed racing EVs are free to explore new ways of squeezing efficiency out of their vehicles in a way that's no longer possible in conventional auto racing. EV performance car engineers design their own engines, cut weight, improve vehicle aerodynamics, create their own parts and generally pull out all stops in the name of going faster.

While conventional racing organizations once operated similarly, most of them today impose serious restrictions. To curb cars from going too fast, and endangering drivers, and to promote close and competitive races, organizations from NASCAR to IndyCar enforce strict rules and standards that homogenize vehicles and have have stalled some of the innovation that drove drivers ever faster in racing's earlier days. For example, the IndyCar series saw its fastest unofficial lap clocked in 1997 at 242.333 mph (389.997 km/h), but safety rules now keep speeds in the 220s. The series raced for six years with only a single engine supplier before lifting that restriction in 2012. Teams still can't make many internal modifications, or design their own suspensions and aerodynamic parts.

Members of the Ohio State Buckeye Bullet team believe the process of custom-designing and building of parts will enable them to someday challenge the land speed records of combustion engines. For example, they are focused on remaking and refining a part found in EVs called a "controller," consisting of an inverter, which changes or inverts DC current from the battery to AC current that powers the motor.

"This technology in the kind of power range we need for these speeds has only existed for industrial purposes," Rizzoni explained. "And those devices are like the size of a refrigerator, not something you can put in a car. So with our industry partners we're working hard to miniaturize things and pack as much (AC) power as possible into as small a package as possible."

As for the new Formula E series, it will be run as an open championship, which means that each team can design its own cars, seeking the best way to achieve the need for speed under far looser overall specifications set forth by FIA (the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, which is sanctioning the race.)

Power From the (Brake) Pedal

While it's the goal of all race cars to go as fast as possible, they also have to be able slow down, especially in the twisty tracks of road-course style racing. Fortunately for Formula E, today's electric technology enjoys an advantage over combustion engines on such courses.

In the past, Formula 1 racers used to waste so much kinetic energy braking that the heat literally made their carbon fiber discs glow red hot. (The organization adopted a system to recover the lost energy in 2009.) Electric vehicles can use the motor itself to brake, which means those energy units aren't lost, but are instead converted to electrons and returned to the battery for later use. This "regenerative braking" doesn't come into play much on big oval tracks like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where strong braking is rare and battery power simply can't keep up with gas. But on twisty tracks, where speeds are up to 200 mph and braking is frequent, regenerative braking can make electric vehicles much more energy efficient, and powerful. (See related: "Pictures: A Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG.")

"I've performed quite a bit of analysis and data on this issue," said Waters. "If you manage the dynamics to recapture as much of that kinetic energy as possible, which also allows you to downsize the brakes and [save] weight, an electric car has parity or a potential advantage compared to a combustion engine for road course racing."

From Racetrack to Driveway

Performance electric cars aren't limited to the racetrack. The Tesla Model S, honored as 2013 Motor Trend's Car of the Year, boasts a 0 to 60 mph time of just 4.2 seconds when it is fitted with the P85 85kWh performance battery. That puts it right up there among the fastest consumer sports sedans on the market. The Model S tops out at 130 mph (209 km/h). (See related, "Tesla Motors' Success Gives Electric Car Market a Charge.")

Just as Tesla founder Elon Musk's innovations have spurred the entire EV industry, Formula E is aiming to foster through the thrill of competition advances that will benefit consumers. "If we can sort of accelerate the technology that's used, it can filter down to the average road car, just like it does in any car from the track to the road," said Tom Phillips, the Formula E spokesman.

John Waters believes that's sure to happen, and said a look at the past provides a road map toward the cars of the future. (See related, "China's Electric Car Drive: Impressive, But Not Enough.")

"Innovation takes place on the racetrack, that's how Indy was started," he said. "It has always been wealthy guys with their cars, looking to push the envelope. Guys like Carl Fisher, James Allison, Arthur Newby, and Frank Wheeler (founders of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) were of much the same pedigree as people you're seeing now entering the conversation with the electric vehicle." (See related: "U.S. Teenagers Are Driving Much Less: 4 Theories About Why.")

"Innovators from Silicon Valley and like-minded Europeans tend to be very steward-minded people and they are asking 'How do we change a dirty sport to promote philosophies and technologies that are more sustainable—but make sure it's still really entertaining to racing fans as well?' "  (See related, "While U.S. Probes Tesla, What You Should Know About Car Fires.")

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

4 comments
Kenneth Palmestal
Kenneth Palmestal

Formula E racing can be even more attractive for the spectators if the cars have exciting electronic engine sounds (V8, V10, V12). Of course not so loud so you have to wear hearing protection like in Formula 1 but enough to add another dimension and enhance the experience. EVEESS (EV electronic engine sound systems) will soon be required by laws in order to reduce the risk for accidents between silent vehicles and pedestrians so the technology is already developed.

Linas Snarskis
Linas Snarskis

I don’t understand why they cannot compete with gas powered cars

Tesla already has charging stations and can swap a battery in 60 seconds

I am sure for race cars they could refine that system and make the battery swap much faster than it would be on par with the gas cars to filling their tanks with gas

Richard Wilson
Richard Wilson

I hope that battery technology will improve so we can charger them quicker, because we can all geberate electricity; wind, solar, and the plug in your home. So we can say goodby to 3+ dollars a gallon of gasoline at the pump.

Recent Energy News

See More at The Great Energy Challenge »

The Big Energy Question

Share Your Opinion »

The Great Energy Challenge

The Great Energy Challenge is an important National Geographic initiative designed to help all of us better understand the breadth and depth of our current energy situation.

Energy News, Blog and Interactive Features »