Sunday, May 23, 2010

Electric Dreams

The other week, I found myself flicking through an 'annual progress report' which my electricity company had deigned to post to me. You know, the kind of corporate bumf which I would normally send straight to the bin, but something in this one caught my eye: a project being undertaken by the founder to develop an electric car.

Now that, in itself is no great novelty. There have been electric cars for years - milk-floats and those tiny little runabouts that look like nothing so much as over-glorified mobility scooters. This, though, looked rather more interesting. Using a Lotus Exige as a base car, a team of engineers (ex-F1 engineers, according to the publicity material) had been set the task of building an electric car capable of doing 0-60 in 4 seconds and topping out at around 125mph. This, unlike any electric car I've heard of before, besides the massively expensive Tesla Roadster, is nudging into the kind of territory where you could race these things.

Now a part of me recoils in horror at the very idea of electric car racing. Motorsport, for me, is about the noise, about the smell, of big, powerful petrol-engined racing cars. It's part of the reason that, for all their technological sophistication, I can't work up much enthusiasm for Peugeot and Audi's diesel endurance racers. And if diesels are bad, electric racing cars are worse. There is simply no getting away from the fact that Ecotricity's Nemesis sounds like a London tube train under acceleration.

Put it down, if you like, to the fact that I'm my parents' son, and back in the late 1960s, while my father was dabbling about with a Formula Junior, my mother was wandering about bare-foot and studying for a degree in ecology, but another part of me is half in love with the idea of electric racing cars. You can read an awful lot of invective on the outer fringes of the blogosphere about how the notion of global warming is some giant government conspiracy to.....well... that's the problem. I've never really seen a coherent explanation of quite in whose interest such a conspiracy would be. But even if climate change turns out to be a storm in a teacup, there is still no getting away from the fact that the stuff we use to run almost all of the world's vehicle fleet today - oil - is going to run out some day, and perhaps sooner than is commonly realised. And if we want to go on having the kind of personal transport the car provides, that means finding another fuel to run them on.

Now what does all this have to do with motorsport? There is a perfectly reasonable argument that, regardless of what the future of motorised transport is, motorsport can continue as a fossil-fuel powered sport. As Mark Hughes pointed out in Autosport a few weeks back, the fact that we nowadays do not use horses as everyday transport has not killed off the Grand National. There is a vital difference, though. Horse racing never did really have any impact on the use of horses as an every-day form of transport. By contrast, at least in its early years, top level motorsport played a great part in driving forward the development of the motor car. These days, a Formula 1 car is so far removed from anything you might drive on the street that it no longer really fulfills this role to a significant extent (though some of the work on electronic driver aids and semi-automatic gearboxes in the early 1990s may have filtered down onto road cars) but electric cars are at a much earlier stage in their development. Where work to eke more power out of a given capacity of internal combustion engine has long since run up against the law of diminishing returns, I can't help but think that the competitive pressure of top-level motorsport could do much to accelerate the development of the electric car.

I'm not suggesting that the Formula 1 World Championship should switch to electric motors in the near future. Apart from anything else, F1 cars really need at least 700 or so BHP in order to be in any way challenging to drive, and no electric motor and battery combination that could fit in a racing car comes close to being able to provide that kind of power output for the duration of a 2 hour Grand Prix. And yes, there is also the sound problem. An F1 car shouldn't sound like a high speed milk-float. But electric motorsports series do already exist.

The EV racing cup is scheduled to begin next year and while, at least for now, they are not attracting the kind of media interest or, more importantly, money, that might drive a real quantum leap in the performance of electric vehicles, but for now, a really big money electric racing effort is not needed and might even be counter-productive to the growth of this form of racing. The small start-up engineering firms and enthusiastic amateurs can begin the process of developing these cars, leaving the big players to come in later when the racing is competitive enough and, crucially, the cars are fast enough, to ensure a real spectacle.

It's not just cars. If anything, electric motorcycles, being lighter, are a more realistic prospect. Last year, a race for electric motorbikes was held for the first time on the Isle of Man TT course, and while the times are not, for now, troubling the petrol powered bikes, they're not embarrassingly slow. The race was won last year by Rob Barber at an average speed of 87.7mph - a long way from the 135mph laps being turned in by the big boys, but considerably quicker than the kind of speeds which were achieved in the first 30 or so years of the event. Given another ten years, and investment from one of the really big players, it's possible that they might not be nearly so far from the pace of the petrol bikes.

I might, of course, be completely wrong. Perhaps electric cars will turn out to be one of history's dead ends - like Betamax or Minidiscs. Maybe the cars of the post-oil age will be powered by biofuels (by the by, a fascinating conversation between two great technophiles, Paul Krugman and Charlie Stross, made mention of work being done by biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter to genetically engineer algae which can be turned into diesel). But would I bet against the 2025 Le Mans 24 hour race being won by a battery powered car? No I wouldn't.

Labels: , , , , ,


Anonymous buy viagra said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:11 PM  
Anonymous Tax Help said...

I love motorsports!

2:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home