Can electric car racing turn geeky into gold?

LONDON -- The future of the motorcar is electric because it has to be, and it is the job of auto racing to come up with fully functional zero-emission race cars and make green not just very fast but very cool, too, according to Paul Drayson, a leading exponent of low-carbon life lived at speed.

Drayson, a multimillionaire businessman and former U.K. defense minister, is one of those at the forefront of electric race car enthusiasts. He is putting his money where his mouth is and hoping to spark interest in the younger generation by making the currently geeky attractive to a general audience.

Geeky looms as a big problem. Electric cars are being sold in the United States, but they haven't exactly roared out of the showrooms. So far, sales here in England could be described as a non-event. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said last month that just 812 buyers had taken up the £5,000 ($7,843) incentive for buying a plug-in car that the government started this year.

Yet tire kickers abound. "We have had lots of interest from a whole range of people -- companies, early adopters and even ordinary individuals -- we will have to see how it translates into actual sales," Alistair Rhead, electric vehicle manager for Mitsubishi Motors, told ClimateWire.

This, according to Drayson, is where electric car racing must step in. His company is developing an electric race car with Lola Cars International Ltd., a British racing car engineering firm.

In his mind's eye, Drayson can already see the crowds and hear the whoosh of fast cars that don't have the stadium-rattling throb of stock cars or banshee-like howls of Formula One racers.

"The electric car technology that is available, just over the last year, has got to the point where you can now build an electric car that will race very effectively and would be a very exciting car to drive and to race. Top speed over 200 mph, length of race 20 minutes, 1.5-mile circuit -- a Monaco-type circuit," he said. "That will start to pack them in."

Technological innovation in the consumer car market has often been driven by the advances in auto racing, where parts are tested under extreme conditions, often to the point of destruction. "Turbochargers, active suspension, ABS, disc brakes, even the rearview mirror was invented through motor sport," Drayson explained.

Getting traction for a different car

"The problem that the electric car industry has got is that unless people start racing electric cars, that process of innovation will not apply to the electric car."

Because they can out-accelerate all but the fastest conventional race cars, electric cars have been taking trophies at drag racing events in the United States. But Drayson says the cars cannot simply -- at least not yet -- be put on the starting line at regular race tracks alongside conventional race cars. They are radically different animals and therefore demand that racing conditions be adapted accordingly.

Drayson pointed out that for three consecutive years, the world's first electric superbikes have been racing at the annual TT motorcycle road races on the United Kingdom's Isle of Man. There, top performance bikes and daredevil riders scream around the island at average speeds of close to 130 mph and top speeds well above that.

Electric bikes have had mixed results, but they are getting close to winning a prize for averaging 100 mph on the course. Drayson thinks the setting has to be different to draw the fans' attention to the more silent electrics.

"It is no good taking electric racing to the Isle of Man TT -- the cradle of hard-core motorbike racing. You can't graft it on. You have to create a completely different type of event. It is no good turning up with an electric car at a Formula One race. You have got to create your own series, your own race," said Drayson.

Taking its cue, the Paris-based international automobile association FIA, motor sport's governing body, has called for tenders to hold for an initial period of three years from 2013 the world's first Formula E championship for electric race cars.

Racing fans get older


According to Drayson, the pressure for this is coming not only from the car industry but from the motor sport lobby itself, which, while seeing healthy and growing audiences at the traditional fossil-fueled races, is also seeing the age profile of those audiences rising steadily.

"The younger generation want more interaction. They want something more than just watching. They want more understanding of the technical aspects. They want more of an event. Therefore, motor sport itself has to change in order to attract a younger audience," he said.

"Nobody has actually built yet a high-performance racing electric car. There is a whole bunch now of serious motor sport people working on this technology, and the industry has a responsibility to show what it can do," he said.

Automobile racing has risen in popularity all over the world. Next to cricket, it is the most popular sport in India, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the nation's narrow highways are among the world's most congested. Millions of Indians dream of driving fast cars, and, in response, the racing industry is preparing for the nation's first Formula One race there later this month.

Races like this provide some of the sizzle for consumers that Drayson wants to see with electric cars. Success on the track, he thinks, will feed back onto the road, boosting the industry and helping the climate.

"I truly believe that motor sport has a responsibility to be part of the solution to climate change, not part of the problem. There are two ways it can do that. One is to accelerate innovation and technology development, and two is to help change the perception that people have of green cars," he told ClimateWire.

"There is a consensus that 40 years from now, the majority of cars on the road will have electric drivetrains. There is this massive technology shift taking place. So the global car industry is saying to the motor sport industry, 'For goodness' sake, will you organize some form of racing which allows us to showcase this new technology to convince the general public that it works, is viable and is cool and exciting?'"

"It is also to create a framework to spur innovation, because motor sport has always driven innovation back into mainstream car driving," added Drayson, who in his 40s also added race car driving to his resume.

To be sure, there are obstacles, he notes. "To get a second wave of consumers buying these cars, the technology has got to improve, price has got to come down, and that requires some pretty important technological barriers to be overcome. But I am confident those barriers will be overcome, because actually there is no alternative, really," he said.

Many contenders; few are being chosen

Virtually all mainstream carmakers -- and several not so mainstream -- are now producing clean-technology vehicles, whether they be highly efficient conventional gasoline-fired engines, biofuel versions, hydrogen fuel cells, plug-in hybrids, extended range gasoline/electric or pure electric.

And in many cases, they benefit from special incentives, whether outright price subsidies, lower road taxes or, as in the case of London, zero congestion charge in the city's central area.

But they still remain expensive to buy -- similar to conventional cars of the same size even after the application of the U.K. government subsidy of up to £5,000 ($7,843) for a pure electric vehicle. Shoppers suffer from worries, both real and exaggerated, about running out of juice. There are also competing claims over running costs.

According to the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association, a Nissan Leaf pure electric car would cost £5,000 more to run over the typical three-year, 36,000-mile life of a company car than an equivalent diesel car.

But at a four-day demonstration of low- to zero-emissions vehicles held recently in the shadow of London's iconic but now defunct coal-fired Battersea power station on the River Thames, several electric car owners cited the arithmetic the other way round, suggesting that the seemingly inexorably rising cost of gasoline and diesel will eventually drive people to buy the cars.

That still seems far down the road. First the geeky, techno-nut aura of electrics has to be removed. Crowds have to be thrilled. Then consumers have to buy large numbers of the cars. Then a secondary, used electric car market has to take shape.

Some, like Drayson, have thought through this cycle to the end, including what happens with their big lithium-ion batteries when electric cars are junked or wrecked.

Power companies investing heavily in renewable but intermittent sources of supply like wind and solar energy are in need of storing that power for later use. Some are thinking of creating huge banks of used electric car batteries, which, according to the manufacturers, will still have something like 80 to 90 percent of their initial capacity after a decade of use on the road.

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