The ABB FIA Formula E World Championship, which wrapped up its seventh season in August 2021, is not only exciting entertainment. The technology involved is also used in developing more energy-efficient road cars, explains Olivier Champenois, Lead Race Engineer for the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team.
Since its first race in Beijing in 2014, ABB Formula E has served up speedy entertainment for fans around the world with 12 teams competing in the 2020-21 series. The “E” stands for electric, meaning that cars cannot use any other type of energy to power themselves. But while it is a lot of fun, there is a deeper purpose to the series, in promoting sustainable mobility and ultimately helping to counteract climate change. These goals are shared by the companies involved. “The involvement of Porsche in Formula E is part of the global strategy of the manufacturer,” says Champenois.
In ABB Formula E, managing energy is vital if you want to finish the race, explains Olivier Champenois, Lead Race Engineer for the TAG Heuer Porsche Formula E Team. But small improvements in efficiency can add up to something greater, and the technology in use in ABB Formula E is also being developed for use in road cars.
One of the company’s long-term plans is to have a CO2-neutral value chain by 2030. “A key part of the company’s strategy is electrifying road cars,” he explains. Porsche’s first hybrid racing car was released in 2010 as the GT3 R, and since then several more have been manufactured, such as the 919 Hybrid, which won the 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race three times. For regular consumers, hybrids like the Cayenne and Panamera are available, along with the Porsche Taycan, the manufacturer’s first fully electric vehicle, available since 2019.
“If you don’t manage your energy, you don’t finish the race.”
Even if the cars used in ABB Formula E have much higher specifications than road cars, the principles governing their construction are broadly the same. “If you don’t manage your energy, you don’t finish the race,” says Champenois. “What we do in Formula E is try and maximize our performance to be the quickest at the finish line with the defined amount of energy, which is quite comparable with road cars where you want to extend your range with a given amount of electricity.”
As might be expected even by the layman, developing electric cars is not an easy process despite the steps made so far. Potential difficulties for electric road cars become much more pronounced in the world of high-performance racing. One particularly striking statistic is that ABB Formula E cars use a vastly smaller amount of energy when racing compared to petrol-drive cars. “We have to do a race with the equivalent of six litres of petrol in terms of energy,” Champenois points out, while a Formula 1 car can use up to 150 litres of fuel per race: a huge difference.
Optimizing energy efficiency bit-by-bit
Unsurprisingly, when trying to wring the best possible performance out of a relatively small amount of energy, energy efficiency has a particularly important role to play. Champenois states that power train efficiency, energy efficiency and management, and the software in use all need to be considered. While the software issue is of particular importance in racing, the power train and energy efficiency elements are equally vital for road cars. “The idea of Formula E is really to push the development of technologies which can be relevant to the road cars of the future, and that is directly connected to road car development.” He also points out that different types of cars need to be optimized in different ways – driving a car on a racetrack is quite distinct from driving in a city centre.
Clearly, ABB Formula E racing cars are extremely efficient – more than 95% of the power generated is used to create movement, compared with just 65% in Formula 1 cars – but as technology advances even more gains are to be made. “The current Gen 2 car is being pushed to its limits. The big step is when we go to Gen 3. With the car that is under development now we will be able to recuperate energy under braking on both axles, at the front and at the rear, meaning a big step in energy efficiency.”
“Energy is not an unlimited resource.”
Although the racing team’s immediate goal is success in the championship, there is the hope that the technology being developed will encourage other manufacturers on the path to a more sustainable industry. “We all know energy is not an unlimited resource, and as engineers we have to develop technologies that push the world to better utilisation of this energy,” Champenois concludes.
“Energy efficiency is really one of the key aspects of the drive towards sustainability. Small increments in a few areas can make a big difference, so I would say keep pushing for those small increments, and all-in-all they will make a big difference in the future.”
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