Electric cars are back on the fast track

New technologies let e-cars reclaim their high-performance heritage

For car enthusiasts who eagerly await the latest performance figures from the automotive press, the number 2.27 was a revelation. That was the number of seconds it took to complete the quickest zero-to-601) mph sprint ever clocked by Motor Trend magazine. That burst of rocket-launch acceleration early last year was not a tire-melting blast from a million-dollar Italian supercar. Rather, it was a sprint by a family sedan built in California. And, oh by the way: No carbon dioxide was emitted in the course of the test. The car was all electric – a Tesla Model S P100D.

If the world needed additional proof, it was simply further evidence that the electric car should no longer be thought of solely as an environmentally correct, no-nonsense mode of transport. Today’s electric vehicles (EVs) can take their place alongside the best fuel-fired high performance cars.

Of course, anyone who has been paying attention already knew that.

After all, the Formula E circuit – the electric-car cousin of Formula 1 grand-prix auto racing – is already in its fourth season and is now sponsored by ABB, the global leader in EV charging technology and electrical power-control systems. The series is now known as the ABB FIA Formula E Championship – the fourth race of the 2017-18 series gets underway in Santiago, Chile, on February 3.

And as automotive historians can tell you, electric cars have always been able to compete at the track. The first car in history to exceed 100 mph (161 km/h) was an electric motor Baker Torpedo that broke that speed barrier in a speed trial back in 1902, outrunning a field of internal-combustion competitors.

Despite that early success, for much of the 20th century, technology and economics tended to put the focus on gasoline and diesel engines. Electric vehicles, as a result got short shrift in research and investment. More recently, though, breakthroughs in batteries and charging systems have enabled EVs to demonstrate the capabilities that make them in many ways superior.

And these days, the advantages that electrification brings to high-performance driving are well known to makers of mass-production vehicles as well as competitors at the highest levels of international motorsports.

The world’s most capable supercars now achieve their prowess with sophisticated electric drive systems that augment their combustion engines. And auto shows from Frankfurt to Paris to Detroit to Tokyo regularly showcase the introduction of radical EV designs, portending a future in which the roar of V12 engines might give way to the blissful whirr of electric propulsion.

Already, fans of Formula E racing often remark that one of the great surprises in attending a race is that spectators can hear the squealing of tires under acceleration and the whine of gears. The only roar is that of the crowd, cheering for their favorite drivers.

Formula E is sanctioned by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, the governing body for the world’s major racing series. The events are held on temporary courses laid out on city streets, bringing the action closer to spectators. Races remaining in the current season, which runs through July, include Mexico City, Rome, Berlin, Zurich and New York.

ABB FIA Formula E Championship race in Marrakesh on January 13, 2018

Formula E cars look a lot like Formula 1 machines. So far, though, because of technical limits in battery and charging technology back when the series was inaugurated in 2014, rules limit the on-board batteries to an energy capacity of 28 kilowatt hours (28 kWh), with no recharging permitted during races. That has meant that a single car and battery cannot finish a race, which has required a team of two drivers and two cars to essentially perform relay-style to complete a competition that might last about 50 minutes. And the rules have limited top speeds to 140 mph.

But when the new season begins in October, the onboard batteries will be upgraded to 54 kWh. That will enable a single car to complete a race.

And yet, use of recharging during Formula E pit stops will still await future evolutions of the sport and the technology. So far, for example, even the fastest electric-car battery chargers – like the ones that have made ABB a world leader in the technology – require about 12 minutes.

Even so, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship is already providing a blueprint for other motorsports to join the electric transition. For 2019, the top motorcycle racing circuit, MotoGP, will add a fully electric support series, the Moto-e World Cup.

Inherent advantages

Equally important for companies involved in electric racing – where battery management, rapid charging and efficiency will be crucial for winning – is the potential for the transfer of technology and knowledge to consumer products. That’s why many of the world’s top automakers are engaged with ABB in research and development of EV technology.

The appeal of electric motors for high performance road cars is not just a desire to chase environmentally sustainable alternatives – or to leverage marketing appeal from the racing series. The impulse is rooted in basic physics and solid mechanical logic.

Most fundamental is a basic characteristic of electric motors. They deliver maximum torque output – the twisting force that is sent to the wheels to propel a vehicle – immediately, just as the motor shaft starts to turn.

ABB EV charging stations in Davos, Switzerland
ABB EV charging stations in Davos, Switzerland

A gasoline or diesel engine needs to be turning its crankshaft at least 1,000 revolutions per minute (and generally much faster) in order to develop peak torque – a process that even with the fastest cars and best drivers is not instantaneous, given the time required to throttle up and get all the many engine components in full motion.

By comparison, the instant full output of an electric motor, with its far fewer moving parts, is what results in record-setting acceleration.

In addition, the wide spectrum of operating speeds afforded by electric motors – there are no limits imposed by pistons stroking up and down or valves opening and closing – typically enables consumer versions of the vehicles to operate without needing to shift gears. Because the flow of torque to the wheels is constant, never pausing to change ratios, the EV’s speed increases seamlessly.

The design flexibility inherent to EVs brings other performance advantages as well. The battery pack – the cells, wiring, temperature management systems and protective casing – is a heavy component. But, it can be built as a thin, flat unit and positioned low in the car, often under the floor of the passenger compartment. That lowers the vehicle’s center of gravity, which improves handling and stability.

With aerospace technology, advanced materials and stunning power-management efficiency, EVs are shedding their no-frills, no-fun image. Formula E, by helping establish credibility for the concept of high-performance EVs, is exposing the public to a motorsport that is as gripping for spectators as it is environmentally forward-thinking.

1) 60 mph is a hair below 100 kilometers per hour.

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