Mercedes is the latest car maker to shift gears to Formula E racing, signaling disruptive change in the automotive space.
MONTREAL — An axiom that bears repeating is that every time a solid-state solution has been created to address an application space, it eventually comes to dominate that space. From the transistor to the flat-screen TV, history is rife with examples of the disruptive change that accompanies technological advance.
The moment the electric motor was created, the clock started ticking on legacy motion technologies.
The automotive space is a perfect example of this. Not only is the modern car at the convergence of every developing technology disrupting society, from the cloud to the smart grid, but cars themselves are undergoing fundamental change. Racing has always been a test bed for automotive development, so the growth of electric racing shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Behind the scenes in the Renault pits
Mercedes-Benz has made two telling moves in the racing space by announcing that it will leave the German Touring Car Masters (Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters, or DTM) touring series in 2018 and will field a team for Formula E electric-car street racing in 2019, in a “strategic repositioning” of development and racing assets. Audi earlier this month announced it was quitting the 24 Hours of Le Mans sports car race and similar endurance championships to shift its attention to Formula E. The two automakers join such other major car manufacturers as BMW, Citroën, Jaguar, Mahindra, and Renault in committing to Formula E racing.
This is just the beginning.
We are getting to the “disruptive” part of change here. Is being an auto enthusiast about the engine technology? Is it about the noise? Or is it about speed and performance?
Electric cars are so powerful that Formula E deliberately made teams use the same transmission-based drivetrain systems to help the drivers transition more easily. Even then the first years of the race saw quite a few corner spinouts as the seasoned drivers learned the completely different power curve that an electric motor presents.
Formula E BMW i8 electric pace car
“In motorsport, like in every other area, we want to be the benchmark in the premium segment and also explore innovative new projects,” Toto Wolff, executive director of Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport, said at an International Automobile Federation (FIA) Formula E press event ahead of a race here last week. “Formula E is like an exciting startup venture: It offers a brand new format, combining racing with a strong event character, in order to promote current and future technologies. Electrification is happening in the road car world, and Formula E offers manufacturers an interesting platform to bring this technology to a new audience.”
Jens Thiemer, vice president of marketing for Mercedes-Benz, said the company “will market future battery-powered electric vehicles using the EQ label. Formula E is a significant step in order to demonstrate the performance of our intelligent battery-powered electric vehicles, as well as giving an emotional spin to our EQ technology brand through motorsport and marketing.”
The biggest hurdles electric vehicles need to clear are energy-storage and driving-range limitations. The good news is that these are not zero-sum endeavors; an advance in one makes the other task easier. The more efficient the motors are, the lighter (and stiffer) the bodies, and the more integrated the electronics, the less energy has to be carried around to achieve a given range. The more energy the storage technology can cram into a space (keeping in mind the risks of thermal runaway and catastrophic failure), the more car you can drive around.
— Alix Paultre is a European correspondent for EE Times.