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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

How high-speed electric vehicle racing is advancing tech


An electric scooter that can go 100 kmph (62 mph)? Meet the sleek new machine that’s designed to leave the clunky scooters you see buzzing around suburban High Streets, in the dust.

“This is a race vehicle,” says Nicola Scimeca, founder of the motorsport technology company YCOM. “It’s entirely different.”

His company designed the S1-X, which has inflatable tyres, a 1.5 kilowatt hour battery, and a carbon fibre chassis. And, according to Mr Scimeca, it provides an unusually steady ride.

“What was really impressive was the confidence it gives you,” he says, recalling his own first test ride.

And, of course, there was no exhaust noise; instead, Mr Scimeca claims he could hear the squeal of the electric motor as it sped up and down, as well as the thrum of the tyres as they gripped the track.

The S1-X racing scooter was designed by engineers at YCOM

The S1-X is a brand new racing vehicle. It will be used by all competitors at next year’s eSkootr Championship, the world’s first e-scooter championship event.

But there are many other electric vehicle (EV) racing events popping-up across the country that are showcasing and championing important advances in EV technology.

Formula E has been around for years, but a flood of newer EV racing events have lately zoomed into view.

The Extreme E race series, which debuted earlier this year, is another. It features a series of off-road events in which electric sports utility vehicles (SUVs) compete. In addition, SuperCharge will bring EV racing to city streets around the world in 2022.

“We feel like we’re really inventing a new sport,” Mr Scimeca says, noting that his team had no precedent to build on when they started designing their racing e-scooter. They were even unsure how the riders would operate the vehicle.

Racing an e-scooter is physically gruelling for riders

It proves to be a physically demanding task. Riders of high-speed e-scooters must adjust their stance quickly around almost every corner.

Fortunately, each heat in the eSkootr Championship will only last four or five minutes, thanks in part to the relatively small battery embedded in the scooter’s base.

According to Mr Scimeca, a single charge may only cover three or four heats before the juice runs out.

Battery life

A flat battery means game over for any EV racer, so it’s something that the entire racing team needs to consider when turning cars around between heats, according to Roger Griffiths, team principal at Andretti United Extreme E.

“All of us who came from traditional motorsport were very comfortable operating internal combustion engine cars,” he says.

“When we first started running an electric racing car, we were thinking, ‘What on Earth are we doing here?'”

Roger Griffiths, Team Principal at Andretti United Extreme E, had to adapt to electric racing challenges

He claims that turning around a racing EV with a depleted battery can take three to four hours, compared to one hour for cooling, refuelling, and checking over a hot Formula One car.

Safety and weight

But there are completely different safety considerations, too, given the high-voltage electronics involved in running EV racing cars.

Last month, there were a series of Extreme E races in Sardinia and one of the cars, driven by Stéphane Sarrazin, was badly damaged in a barrel roll. In such cases, engineers must make absolutely sure there are no live electronics exposed, says Mr Griffiths. “You have to treat it with caution until you know the thing is safe,” he adds.

Due to the weight of their batteries, EVs are slightly heavier than traditional racing vehicles; however, their weight distribution does not change during the race, unlike their counterparts running on liquid fuel, which is depleted lap by lap. As a result, EVs behave slightly differently for drivers.

Extreme E racing is an opportunity to demonstrate the robustness of electric vehicles

One of the Extreme E events’ goals is to demonstrate the capabilities and robustness of EVs. The track in Sardinia, Italy, was a particularly difficult test, being extremely dusty to begin with and then becoming increasingly damp as the racing weekend progressed.

All drivers compete in Extreme E in a specially designed electric SUV called the Odyssey 21. According to Mr Griffiths, the cars are powered by on-site generators that run on biofuel or hydrogen. “We’re here to demonstrate that these cars can be green,” he says.

The Odyssey 21s also demonstrate technology that could eventually make its way into more affordable consumer EVs. Silicon carbide semiconductors, which are used in Formula E and Extreme E cars, are a prime example. According to Mr Griffiths, these semiconductors enable significantly more efficient power transfer within the vehicle, potentially providing dozens of miles of additional range on the same battery.

The new technology being roadtested in Extreme E cars may eventually become part of every day EVs for consumers

“This technology is prohibitively expensive in road cars, but it is being developed in racing,” he adds.

That could bring silicon carbide to everyday EVs sooner than forecast. Interest from the consumer market is strengthening all the time. Analysis from global accounting and consultancy firm EY suggests that EVs will become dominant on roads in Europe by 2028, five years sooner than expected.

Shirley Gibson says the five minute heats in rallycross events work well for EVs to cut down charging time

Racing EVs are also becoming more popular at events in the United Kingdom. Shirley Gibson is the Retro Rallycross and all-electric Electro Rallycross championships’ championship coordinator. The latter will be available in 2021.

Ms Gibson has aided in the adoption of electric vehicles in British racing events.

“The transition must be made now to ensure a more sustainable future,” she says.

“You know, I didn’t want to be too late in getting this going in the United Kingdom.”

Electro Rallycross launched this year

She explains that the short heats of five minutes or less in rallycross events – a cross between rallying and circuit racing – are ideal for electric cars because they don’t require a long charge to compete.

Ms Gibson fully supports the development of new EV racing vehicles, as well as the involvement of well-known teams and drivers, in order to propel electric racing forward.

“It’s the future,” she declares.

She adds that, while some petrolheads will always complain about electric vehicles’ lack of exhaust noise, the visual spectacle remains thrilling.

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