Can Formula E Finally Make the World Pay Attention to Electric Cars?

By Craig Scarborough on at

Electric vehicles (EVs) are coming -- it's inevitable, but people's attitudes are one of its biggest obstacles. This is where Formula E, the FIA's first all-electric racing series, might be able to help. This new series is aimed at changing people's perceptions of EVs, with its first race silently running around the streets of Beijing in September 2014.


Are EVs cool?

EVs appear to be an unloved segment of the car market. But are they? Research by Ernst & Young in partnership with Formula E showed that the only segment growing in the German car market was for low emission vehicles, with electric actually overtaking LPG or hybrid options. Equally, Renault's key growing car segment is their all-electric vehicle option. In cities such as Beijing along with LA, Miami or London and their obvious pollution problems, EVs are the obvious route. More research from the E&Y sustainability report highlighted the obstacles to take up of EVs as being: social attitudes, technology, pricing, regulatory, infrastructure.

Social attitudes are largely related to the practicality of EVs, with the obvious argument being the distance the car can go on a single charge. Again E&Y research showed that, for city dwellers a least, nearly 70 per cent of journeys are already within the range of contemporary EVs. This belies the endurance argument, but clearly technology and infrastructure have a part to play. EVs still need to extend their range and performance, while city infrastructure to support EVs either from a simple plug-in point, to the potential future of coils embedded in the road will power the cars wirelessly making driving an EV in city a near infinitive range.

Equally both of these practical solutions require regulatory changes both at a central government and perhaps more critically local government level. It's the city hall and mayoral level that provide some of the strongest advocates. Mayors in many cities are directly responsible for pollution and mass transit solutions; having their buy-in to equip and promote EVs in their city has obvious benefits for the take-up of EVs. Cost obstacles for EVs come in the base price and running costs, and typically, EVs are seen as more expensive than their fossil-fuelled equivalents. Yet Renault's Zoe is the same purchase price as an equivalent Clio Diesel, although there is the added cost of the rental on the battery pack, which is the favoured means to ensuring batteries have a finite life. But once on the road, costs tumble, with a full charge costing around £3 for a 100 mile range. If we roughly converted that pound-for-pound to MPG it means the car would do an equivalent of over 200mpg, or petrol motoring costs about 15p per mile, while EV motoring costs some 3p per mile.

It's clear that for all the obstacles, the potential for EVs is enormous. E&Y's conservative estimates of the EV market in the next 25 years is for 77 million new electric vehicles. By this point the ecological saving for the planet stands at 4 billion barrels of oil, 900 million tonnes of CO2 and perhaps unexpectedly £25 billion saving in healthcare from the reduction in pollution. Further economic benefits are the £142 billion from sales of EVs and the 42,000 jobs to create them.


Formula E relevance

Motorsport has taken small steps towards green initiatives, with F1 making strides to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions amongst the teams, seeing the cars using hybrid technologies and running a fuel with a minimum Bio-content. NASCAR in the US runs on Bio ethanol fuel, and racing at Le Mans has encouraged fuel efficiency with clean diesel racing engines and the adoption of hybrid systems. But still, motorsport is rarely seen as a strong advocate of the environmental lobby.

This is where Formula E comes in. This is not so much a series aimed at hard-core motorsport, but towards city-based sports fans who are potential EV customers. Alejandro Agag, the Formula E CEO, explains that the series can help change attitudes by rapid development of technology, making EVs look "cool", and by engaging with national and local governments to get EVs on the agenda.

Taking this non-motorsport fan and generally a younger city-based audience is key to Formula E and EVs. Agag makes a strong point that "globally, there are more sports fans than environmentalists". With this form of motorsport, general sports fans will be taken in to the environmentally-friendly world of EVs. It's been identified that the younger audience will be a target market, and by using social media to allow fans to interact directly with the sport (including voting by Twitter or Facebook to give their favourite driver a power boost), not to mention an augmented reality video game, the series is making attempts to speak to them in their natural tongue.

Historically, bringing motorsport to city centres brings an outbreak of environmental issues, namely concerning noise and pollution. Any city council would have a hard task on their hands promoting such an event. However the Formula E the emphasis is on the low noise, low emissions of the cars.

In its first year Formula E will be a single specification series, with technology provided by big players such as Renault, McLaren and Michelin. Thereafter it will be an open series, with few technical boundaries. Those major players as well as a new cluster of niche technology businesses will be pushing to develop ever more effective electric powertrains. It will be these niche companies that'll emerge into the larger market of road-going EVs. Technology transfer will be both ways, resulting in far faster development of technology from heat of the battle.

Fundamentally the aim of Formula E is to be sport, not a show or a demonstration. But it will be the first time sport is used to have a positive effect on sustainability. Perhaps we will be able to enjoy both a great racing series on our doorsteps, and a cleaner future? Drive on, to September 2014.

Craig Scarborough is a London-based freelance F1 journalist and illustrator who blogs and tweets here.