Racing towards zero emissions

Anumita Roychowdhury, CSE’s executive director-research and advocacy, talks cars, mobility, emissions and much more with Lucas di Grassi, Formula E racing star. The Brazilian motor racing icon is the winner of the 2019 FIA Formula E Berlin e-Prix and a UN Ambassador for Environment

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Thursday 24 October 2019

Generally speaking, a conversation with a motor racing star can be expected to dwell largely on the subjects of speed, thrill and endurance. Not so with Lucas di Grassi. Winner of the Formula E — a motor racing event exclusively for electric vehicles — di Grassi visited Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) to shoot a documentary on air pollution, and ended up sharing with me his personal story and journey towards his obsession with clean mobility.

Our exchange was extremely insightful, and focused on some of the least understood connections between a major sporting event like Formula E racing, and its potential to incubate technological innovations that can be replicated and translated in regular electric road vehicles. Excerpts:

Lucas: The beginnings

As a kid, I grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil. My dream was to become a racing car driver. I didn’t really care about sustainability. I followed my career path built around motor sports and racing cars.

But around 2009-10, I began noticing a transition towards the idea of electric cars. This was a time when I was racing in endurance races, which were already using hybrids. I drove an electric car for the first time, and really liked it.

I wanted to understand this technology, and started reading up about it. I came to grasp the benefits and efficiency of this technology and its operational costs, and everything started to make so much sense!

So, when in 2012, my former team boss invited me to be a part of a new company, I took the offer, and the foundations of today’s billion-dollar industry of electric car racing was laid. Today, every manufacturer wants to invest in electric mobility. They see this as the future.

Anumita: Traditionally, Formula racing is known to have triggered technological innovations for endurance in the car. These innovations have eventually migrated to cars that ply on our roads — from brakes and aerodynamic designs, to gear shifts, engine air intake and tyres. Is Formula E going to be the test-bed of technological solutions for our mainstream electric cars?

From racing track to road

You are absolutely right. It’s the same way with technologies related to the military and to aerospace — racing follows the same philosophy. We invest in R&D for technology development. These technologies create value.

In fact, our way of setting the technical rules for Formula E racing has driven innovation, generating value for manufacturers. That is why we now have pretty much all the manufacturers of the world in Formula E racing. It’s good timing too: this will make electric cars safer and cheaper.

To give a very interesting example, we have now developed technologies that could make brakes in cars redundant — we may not need the traditional brakes in cars any more. This can reduce costs, and still be safe. The size of the motor has also become very small.

As they use less material, they are expected to get a lot cheaper. In fact, a rickshaw motor could be made the size of a small microphone in future, and can be mass produced.

You are also an inventor and have produced e-bikes. In Brazil today, there is this vision of e-bikes becoming the vehicle of the masses. What do you have to say about this zero emission roadmap for the people?

E-bikes and sustainable solutions

When I calculated the most efficient way of using non-public transport, the e-bike came up at the top of pretty much every other vehicle, mainly because of the weight, the amount of battery you need, the length and the efficiency of transport. So I decided to invest in and create a better bike, designed for the Brazilian market.

It is very robust and the battery is very well protected, even from water. It is capable of reaching a very long range without recharging. It has been tested for durability, resistance and efficiency, and uses a lithium-ion battery.

I grew up in a big city but I was fortunate enough to be able to travel and see nature. That gives me the inner drive. I fundamentally believe that economic growth can co-exist with sustainable solutions.

An Afterword

This conversation with Lucas made me aware of how Formula racing has become a laboratory for advancing technology development that can be translated to road vehicles, giving higher and better speed and distance range from electric motors and batteries.

Significant changes have been possible, as stricter rules have been set for racing. Formula E racing does not allow battery swapping midway to enhance range; instead, in its initial years, it had allowed swapping of cars — the whole car could be changed midway to complete the distance.

But now, even that is not needed as batteries are achieving ranges that can allow motorists to complete the race. This has driven innovation. Carmakers are optimising energy management. Every time the driver hits the brakes, the car’s kinetic energy is recaptured and converted into electricity and this energy is put back into the battery; this almost doubles its efficiency.

The ‘e-Pedal’ has caught people’s imagination. Drivers can accelerate, decelerate and stop using the e-Pedal. This minimises the use of brake pads and reduces costs. The Nissan Leaf, BMW i3, Volkswagen Golf, and Chevrolet Bolt EV are adopting the e-Pedal through regenerative braking technology. India’s Mahindra group has ventured into motor racing with its own e-car.

More advanced software allows powertrain to optimise and convert the engine’s power into movement. Even though all racing cars are usually identical, alterations have been allowed in the suspension, brakes and software to get a competitive edge.

The Formula E racing circuit has led to advancements in longer-lasting batteries with improved efficiency and powertrains, artificial intelligence and algorithms to analyse enormous data for better energy management. Such cars can be fitted with powerful 250-kW motors (about 335 horsepower), and can rev up to 280 km/h.

In the coming days, the Formula E racing track promises to throw up more solutions — not only to address range anxiety and stress of the regular customer of electric vehicles, but also to provide big answers to the zero emissions transition.   

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