Electric racing series fine-tunes upcoming transportation tech

Updated Oct 28, 2015
A competitor in the Formula E seriesA competitor in the Formula E series

Last weekend was Talladega weekend here in Alabama, where CCJ is based.

Racing today is more sport and spectacle than anything else. But for a remarkably long period of time, racing was vitally important to the automotive industry at large.

In the very early days of the automobile, racing’s primary purpose was to create interest in a wholly new mode of transportation and, it was hoped, help create a customer base interested in buying one of the new-fangled contraptions.

Equally important, however, was the secondary role racing played, which was to convince potential customers that automobiles were tough enough to provide reliable service and usefulness on the poor roads in place at the time.

That’s why early races were often endurance tests as opposed to flat-out racing like we know today. In many cases, simply getting your vehicle across the finish line of a 50- or 60-mile course was a major victory for a manufacturer.

As the sport matured, industry suppliers recognized that racing was essentially a compressed-time laboratory that allowed them to test and refine their products in grueling competitive conditions. Tire, lubricant, fuel and other component suppliers quickly put their products on or in race cars to see how they performed. Victories translated into major advertising campaigns and resulting sales. Losers (as well as winners) used the data learned during races to continually upgrade and improve their products.

A glimpse at the 2014 London-held Formula E races.A glimpse at the 2014 London-held Formula E races.

As a result, the automobile progressed rapidly from a curiosity to a play-thing for the wealthy to a dependable, affordable means of transportation for everyday families.

Bearing all that in mind, it was with interest last week that I noted a tweet by millionaire entrepreneur and adventurer Richard Branson highlighting his Formula E electric car racing initiative.

You’ve probably seen Branson on TV: he’s the long-haired CEO of Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines, and he’s constantly running all over the globe, setting endurance records in balloons, racing yachts, pioneering space tourism or advocating causes close to his heart.

And one of his new causes is proving the viability and usefulness of electric powered vehicles.

If you’ve read CCJ’s special report on the future of trucking, you know that electric-powered vans and trucks will play important roles in freight delivery. This isn’t theory: electric delivery vans are already common in European cities. And industry thought-leaders like UPS and FedEx are already working with similar vehicles here in the States.

Of course, there are currently many problems with electric vehicles that make fleet managers doubtful as to how useful they’ll every actually be. Chief among these are range anxiety (directly related to current battery charge-capacity limitations) and system recharging times.

Those problems are exactly the kind of technological barriers racing helped gasoline-powered cars overcome 100 years ago. It’s only logical to assume manufacturers and engineers will become to work out solutions to electric vehicle limitations on racetracks today. And eventually, those enhancements will find their way onto future production delivery vans.

Several Formula E sponsors, such as Michelin, QualComm and DHL, have clear connections to the trucking industry. So clearly there is a method to this madness, so to speak. Racing electric cars may seem like a lark today. But there will likely be real-world payoffs in trucking tomorrow.