As Jean-Eric Vergne whirred across the finish line in Brooklyn last weekend, he did more than lock up the championship of the 2018-19 Formula E season. Driving for the Chinese team Techeetah, Vergne and his race car offered a potent, if silent, testimony to the tech that before long could power the next electric car you put in your driveway.
Now five seasons old, Formula E is meant to utilize racing—long a rolling laboratory for automotive development, yielding advancements like antilock brakes, traction control, and dual-clutch transmissions—to help EV manufacturers and suppliers like BMW, Nissan, Audi, Panasonic, Mahindra, and Jaguar move their battery-powered products forward. Not just to showcase what electrics can do, but to make them better.
“One key reason is telling the world about the benefits of electric vehicles—not only the benefits from an environmental point of view, with emissions, but also showcasing the technology and the performance,” says James Barclay, who runs Jaguar’s Formula E team. “The reality is there are real translations in the technology from Formula E to our future production cars.”
Now, teams can’t mess with the battery itself, at least not yet. Every car must carry the same 52-kWh pack. Same goes for aerodynamics. The teams share a car body. While that limits innovation in two big areas, it pushes manufacturers to find their competitive edge elsewhere. The result is a host of upgrades that could advance our plugged-in vehicular future in everything from weight reduction to energy management.
Reducing mass has long been a means of making EVs quicker and more efficient, and the skills learned here translate into road cars. Audi applied its “Ultra” lightweighting strategy at an ultra level, says performance director Allan McNish, removing a full 10 percent of the mass from its race car by analyzing every component for potential savings. BMW dropped the weight of its motor by supporting it with composites, utilizing highly conductive materials such as resins, titanium, and ceramics. “These materials are being tested in the electric engine during the race season to improve future road-car electric motors,” says spokesperson Oleg Satinovsky. The company is also using its 3D printing know-how—developed at its new, $11.2 million facility near Munich—to make components like a 360-degree aluminum motor casing. It’s just one step in BMW’s plan to make 50,000 3D-printed parts a year for all its vehicles.
BMW also sees a technology transfer when it comes to stopping power. The German brand simultaneously introduced an electronic brake-by-wire system in its Formula E car and in its X5 and X7 SUVs and 8-Series coupe this year. This system allows it to offer consumers on its M8 an adjustment for brake pedal feel for the first time. That’s an innovation it developed partly to help Formula E drivers maintain consistent braking feel, even as the level of energy regeneration shifts to balance power output and return—key in a sport that allows no recharging pit stops. BMW has also seen a direct transfer of software: Its race car, i3, and electric Mini Cooper share electric motor control coding.
This idea of transferring tech isn’t so natural for the Formula E automaker that isn’t operating in the more exclusive reaches of the EV marketplace. The Indian conglomerate Mahindra has been manufacturing electric vehicles for 18 years, but it focused on low-cost, low-voltage applications. Being a part of the racing series has jump-started its experience with more powerful vehicles and helped it plan for a new round of more upscale consumer EVs, says team principal Dilbagh Gill. The competition has further exposed Mahindra to carbon fiber and composites construction and applications. It has also helped the company make inroads and connections with the suppliers and supply chain necessary to expand its use of these advanced materials throughout its vehicle range.
This transfer is especially relevant and direct for Mahindra’s newest brand, Automobili Pininfarina, a boutique manufacturer of all-electric supercars. “Since this is a pure high-performance electric car, a lot of knowledge has gone from Formula E into it, right from battery pack design, battery cooling, motor, and motor design,” says Gill. “Whatever we’ve learned, including a lot of work on software, controls, drivers, driving standards.” Even Pininfarina’s lead development driver carries over: Nick Heidfield, who drove for the Formula E racing team for the last three years, is in charge of honing the experience behind the wheel.
The route from track to assembly line isn’t always a one-way street. Nissan, which has been mass-producing the Leaf for nearly a decade, has put tech it made for the all-electric compact into Formula E. And it translates what it learns there into its next generation of EVs. What Nissan calls the “Road to Race to Road” process focuses on the minutia of energy efficiency, says global motorsports director Michael Carcamo. That includes tiny software tweaks to squeeze ever more power and range out of the battery.
BMW sees similar reciprocity within its Formula E and consumer EV design and engineering teams. According to Satinovsky, the team that has been developing electric motors, inverters, and software for the brand’s consumer electric vehicles was selected to do the same job for the Motorsport division.
Porsche, which will make its Formula E debut next year, carries on its taste for being a bit different. According to Porsche motorsport communications director Dave Engleman, since the forthcoming Taycan electric sedan is pretty much developed, and next season’s Formula E car is only about 75 percent locked in, Porsche is using the Taycan as a rolling test bed for its electric racing technologies. Having taken a couple hot laps on the Brooklyn track in a Taycan prototype with 24 Hours of Le Mans–winning driver Neel Jani at the wheel, we can attest that said rolling is very fast.
“Competition has and always will be a major catalyst,” says Audi’s McNish. If it means going faster, farther, more efficiently, and with zero tailpipe emissions, we are all for the race.