Photograph by Wilfredo Lee, AP
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Cars round a turn at the Formula E Miami ePrix race Saturday. Organizers hope the race will drive innovation for electric vehicles.

Photograph by Wilfredo Lee, AP

Adjust Your Volume: Formula E’s New (Whiny) Era of Racing

The superfast electric cars could drive innovation, but they're not music to everyone's ears.

If the future of automotives has a sound … well, that sound might drive you to plug your ears.

"The car sounded like my grandmother's scootmobile going through the supermarket mixed with my granddad's wheezing cough." That was one racing fan's assessment on Reddit of the new, all-electric version of Formula racing, which arrived last weekend in the United States after debuting in the fall in Asia.

The Formula E cars aren't exactly silent, as anyone who's driven a Toyota Prius or other battery-powered car might expect. Fans have likened the whir of motors on the raceway to vacuums, toys, and Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett playing slide guitar while on LSD.

Auditory experience aside, Formula E's objective is to make the world more sustainable by promoting electric vehicles. A cousin of Formula 1 run by the same governing body, the new championship features teams with high-profile backers, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. (Read more about how a battery-powered Grand Prix could outshine a traditional one in terms of performance.)

"Formula E will pioneer technology which will be used on normal road cars," Branson said at Saturday's Miami race, which drew a crowd of about 20,000. "Every team next year will be working hard to beat each other, and all that manpower, finance, and energy will produce breakthroughs."

The cars can reach speeds of 225 km/h (140 mph)—but with current battery technology, they can't get all the way through a single race, which lasts about an hour. The teams are permitted to swap in a newly charged car about halfway through.

See highlights from Saturday's race and listen for yourself: What does electric racing sound like to you?

This and other quirks of the format have drawn both interest and ire from audiences. No matter what fans think of the race now, though, it won't stay the same for long. The technology will change, and that's the point: Formula E spokesperson Luca Colajanni says he expects batteries will eventually advance to the point where car swapping isn't needed, but "not before the fifth season."

He also notes that while all the cars are mechanically the same in this first season, future races will allow teams to adopt different power trains and battery technologies.

To ensure that the events made for compelling viewing, FIA (the International Automobile Federation) brought in a roster of ex-Formula 1 drivers and famous racing names: Senna, Andretti, Prost.

"I think everyone's been quite surprised at how much momentum the series has gained so far," says Luke Murphy, who has been writing about it for the racing news site "It's been really striking to see how competitive the cars are."

FIA is making a concerted effort to attract new viewers with Formula E. All the events are taking place in metropolitan areas, rather than at permanent racing circuits that might be farther out of town. (Take the quiz: What You Don't Know About Cars and Fuel.)

"We want to bring this event close to people, close to families," says Colajanni.

A "FanBoost" component also encourages people to vote online for their favorite drivers. The ones with the most votes get a temporary amp-up of speed during the race.

Then there's the soundtrack. In addition to the dentist's drill buzz of the motors, FIA plays music (or as FIA puts it, "exclusively created musical content"), a decision that has rankled some fans.

"It's an experiment," Colajanni says. As for the noise from the cars themselves, he says, it's a "fascinating" effect that for him calls to mind Tron, the 1982 video game fantasy movie.

The next race will be April 4 in Long Beach, California, followed by Monte Carlo, Berlin, Moscow, and London. Although the viewer experience is a work in progress, Murphy is optimistic about Formula E's potential to change cars for the better, much in the way that Formula 1 has been a catalyst for innovation.

"It's really captured the imagination,” he says, “of quite a few people who are excited about what the future of electronic technology in road cars is going to be like."

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

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.