Formula E: What Is It and Will it Raise the Profile of EVs?

Emily Buchanan is a digital editor and writer living in Norwich, UK. As an ardent environmentalist, her specialities include sustainability, conservation and global politics. In the last few years, she’s been published by the Ecologist, UNICEF, Blue & Green Tomorrow and the ENN. For more information and regular updates, follow Emily on Twitter.

A forthcoming electric racing series proposes to boost electric car sales by showcasing just how fast, reliable and safe they are.

The FIA Formula E Championship launches in Beijing this September and will take place in ten different cities, including Los Angeles, Miami, Buenos Aires, Berlin and London. Boasting a number of high profile celeb backers, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Sir Richard Branson, Formula E has excellent intentions, but how will it fair?

How does Formula E work?

In the first season, all 10 teams will use the same car – a Spark-Renault SRT_01E that maxes out at 140mph and accelerates 0 – 62mph in 3 seconds.

After the first season, Formula E becomes an “open championship,” where teams can source their own vehicles. Organisers hope this’ll encourage the automotive industry to research and develop more electric vehicles, pushing the boundaries of current technology.

After all, due to technical limitations, the Spark-Renault has limited battery life and won’t be able to last the whole race. Drivers will have to stop halfway to charge up or switch to a second car – which could be a bit of a buzz kill.

Why Beijing?

Beijing is powerful city with a massive population – and a serious air pollution problem. It’s been predicted that as much as 30% of all CO² produced in Beijing comes from cars and last year, the city clocked up a hazardous Air Quality Index of 500 (150+ is considered unhealthy). In other words, it’s an environmental nightmare, so why has it been chosen as the launch base for such an eco-minded event?

Well, for starters, taking an all-electric race to the polluted streets of Beijing sends a very strong message to the government: it’s time to clean up. This is especially the case if Formula E captures the public’s imagination and creates a demand for electric vehicles, which is what organisers are hoping.

What’s more, China’s government is willing to cooperate. Premier Li Keqiang made this clear in his annual address at the National People’s Congress. “We will declare war against pollution and fight it with the same determination we battled poverty,” he said. “[Pollution is] nature’s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.”

Need for Noise

A common criticism of electric vehicles is that they don’t make enough noise – making them death traps for those annoying pedestrians who listen for cars rather than looking.

More than that though, F1 fans believe the noise of the engine is an important part of the racing experience. Just recently Formula 1 encountered legal problems after it developed energy efficient engines that were quieter than their predecessors. According to the Australian Grand Prix, fans were unsatisfied with the muted tones which meant that Formula 1 was in breach of contract.

Ingeniously, Formula E plans to counter-balance this need for noise with an interactive element that lets fans directly influence the course of the race. “Push-to-Pass” gives fans the ability to decide which driver gets a power boost by voting for them on social media. While many Formula 1 fans are sceptical, Formula E seems confident that it will be a success.

What impact will it have?

The environment is at the top of Formula E’s agenda. “One of the most important elements of the FIA Formula E Championship, and the aspect that makes it so unique compared to other motorsport series, is its commitment to tackling environmental issues,” reads the website. But how successfully will it tackle these issues?

According to an impact report commissioned by Formula E, the racing series will contribute to the sale of 77 million electric vehicles between 2015 and 2040. This will generate €142 billion, increase the EV market share by 17%, create 42,000 permanent jobs, improve the quality of city life, save €25 billion in healthcare costs, save 4 billion barrels of oil and avoid 900 million tonnes of CO²!

However, compared to the current climate, these figures seem quite idealistic. As Gerry Bucke from Adrian Flux Insurance Services writes, “Electric vehicles are still considered a niche purchase. Despite improved sales figures last year, they need a significant profile boost before they can enter the mass-market.”

All being well, Formula E will provide that much needed boost. With several international investors, including Renault, McLaren, Qualcomm, Michelin, and Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin group, Formula E is primed for the international stage. With any luck, it will be fully embraced by the motorsports industry and prove an overnight success for the reputation of electric vehicles and the wider environmental objectives that they represent.


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