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Formula E: Showcasing Technology Competitively

Rob Enderle

I spent last weekend at the Formula E races in New York. It is an interesting series for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that the cars are electric. But this type of race really doesn’t showcase electrics in the best light. For instance, as anybody who has ever tracked a Tesla will tell you, electrics suck on a track course (they overheat) but they kick butt as dragsters. So, a typical road course, as opposed to something that showcases straight-line performance or massive torque, just isn’t the best option for the technology.

Tesla is the current electric car leader, and Volvo just positioned itself to be second. Neither are in this race, which may be related to the problem I just explained. There are also no Japanese car companies, although Panasonic, a storied Japanese firm, is showcased as a battery supplier (it also does Tesla’s batteries). No U.S. auto companies compete, either.

The most interesting cars were the pace and safety cars, both BMW i8s that had been modified to be decent cars, a far better technology showcase for Qualcomm, and even a better automotive showcase for BMW.

Formula E

Just to get this out of the way first, Formula E is like Formula 1, but with electric rather than gas-powered cars. It is fascinating to watch because you don’t need earplugs to survive the race; the cars sound a bit like they would if they had small turbine engines. They are far quieter than gas but far from silent. The race is 42 laps and, instead of changing tires and adding gas, they change cars every eight to 10 laps. The track is short with sharp turns, keeping speeds down a bit, and the race is tight and interesting. It’d likely be better with gas and that is at the core of the problem.

You see, when you watch the race, they also show the battery life of each car and how hard the drivers must work to make sure that they don’t run out of electricity. If a car does run out, it is basically dead. They must bring a crane out to haul it off the track. One of the big problems with buyers thinking about moving to an all-electric is the fear of running out of battery power. You can’t just hike down the road or call AAA for a can of electricity and, to my knowledge, 20-mile extension cords are expensive and problematic. So, the race constantly reinforces and builds on the perception that electric cars aren’t practical. This looks, particularly for Panasonic, which I’m assuming wants to sell more car batteries, like someone missed a planning meeting.

Qualcomm Pace Car

Strangely, if you look at the i8 pace and safety cars, they are a far better showcase of what could be. First, they are plug-in hybrids, which gets to the heart of battery anxiety by removing it. Second, they have been modified with bigger engines and better suspension, taking BMW’s joke of a supercar (the i8 must be the slowest supercar on the market by a significant margin) and making it competitive. The car uses Qualcomm’s Halo resonance charging technology so it never needs to be plugged in (you just roll the car over a charging plate). On the track, surprisingly enough, it turned in times close to the Formula E racers (according to the driver that drove me around the track in an i8).

Given BMW’s racing background, I’m kind of surprised at the i8. While it is a tech showcase, it really isn’t a great car. The coming Jaguar iPace seems to be a far better showcase of both Jaguar as a car company and core technology. The i8 pace car showcased that BMW could have built a car that was both a good technology showcase and a competitive supercar; it just chose not to. I’m reading an interesting book, “Black Box Thinking,” that may explain this. It suggests that decision makers often get tunnel vision, completely miss critical facts that would suggest a different path, don’t learn from their mistakes, and then make a habit of repeating them.


Future of Formula E

Now given that Formula 1 already has gone to a hybrid engine design, going that way with Formula E would be a tad redundant. But you could put charging coils into the tracks. Qualcomm’s solution has been tested to around 70 MPH, so the cars could charge as they raced and move to a hybrid battery design that used ultracapacitors to eliminate much of the battery heating and performance problems. A new technology was just announced that could eliminate lithium-ion batteries in everything if it pans out and virtually eliminate batteries as a problem in cars, but it is at least five years out right now.

Going forward, the racing teams will eventually be able to modify their cars more aggressively. Then, I expect, they’ll become a better technology showcase. But I was left wondering if they should have been racing the modified i8s and not electrically driven Formula 1 knock-offs that made electric cars look bad. I also wonder if they shouldn’t replace the batteries in those cars with ultracapacitors so they were used more effectively during the race.

In the Box Thinking

With any new technology, I’ve observed that the tendency is to start off trying to shoehorn it into existing forms and functions. For instance, the first cars basically looked like buggies with engines, and clearly the first autonomous cars are going to look just like every other car. Eventually, they’ll evolve. With racing cars, part of the effort should be to advance this evolution massively and, at the very least, not present electric cars in a bad light unless the objective is to scare people away from the technology.

Also at the track was Roborace, a firm attempting to bring to market autonomous racing cars. But given that we have seemingly far more advanced systems coming to market this year from Audi than it showcased, and that the interesting race would be between human and robotic drivers, even this company seemed like it had missed a meeting.

Wrapping Up: The Evolution of Formula E

I think Formula E should evolve into a showcase of man/machine integration, where we take elements of Roborace and Formula E and combine them into a race in which the drivers are augmented, much like Toyota imagines with its Guardian Angel AI technology.

This is consistent with IBM’s AI strategy and might help address Elon Musk’s concerns of hostile AIs wiping out humans. Right now, we are on an either-or path with robots, which seems suicidal even to me. It suggests that, for our own sakes, we should be more focused on augmenting rather than replacing people with AIs. Cars would be a great way to drive home that argument.

Of the two technology vendors that support this race, Qualcomm and Panasonic, Qualcomm had a good showcase but in the pace cars rather than the race cars (it is interesting to note that its wireless technology is actually used heavily in Formula 1). Panasonic, on the other hand, was effectively working against itself because with all the car changing, battery life driver distractions, and stalled dead battery cars, the race process reflected badly on the batteries. Changing that process to reflect positively on the company’s products or aggressively moving to ultracapacitor hybrid technology would make so much more sense.

 

Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm.  With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+


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