All-electric race cars are getting faster and lasting longer.
By Jeremy Deaton
Cars zipped past at blistering speeds, only slowing to round the hairpin turns etched into the waterfront course in New York City. Spectators lined up at the edge of the roadway, close enough to see the drivers strain against their steering wheels. From that distance, fans could smell the burning rubber and feel the rush of wind as cars bolted past, but they could not hear the roar of an internal combustion engines.
That’s because these cars run on lightning, and they scarcely make a sound.
The gearbox of a Formula E race car generates the same whirring hum as Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder, but the cars are otherwise noiseless. Powered by electricity, the vehicles use no liquid fuel and produce no emissions, and that is the least impressive thing about them. Formula E cars can go from zero to 60 in three seconds and reach top speeds around 140 miles per hour, more than enough for the winding street circuits where they compete. Jean-Eric Vergne, the winner of Sunday’s race in Red Hook, Brooklyn — the twelfth and final contest of the 2017–2018 season — beat the next closest competitor by just half a second. Next year, races could be even tighter, as Forumla E adopts faster cars with more range and power.
Currently, cars last around 25 minutes before needing to be recharged, so drivers have to switch to a second car mid-race. For the fifth season of Formula E, which begins in December, each car will sport a battery large enough to make it through an entire 50-minute race. They will also feature a more aerodynamic design to compensate for the added weight. The million-dollar cars promise a top speed of upwards of 170 miles per hour, more than 30 miles per hour faster than their predecessors and closer to the speed of NASCAR and Formula 1 race cars.
While teams can customize a car’s motor, inverter and transmission, the battery of each car is standardized and its output capped at 180 kilowatts. In certain circumstances, organizers allow batteries to deliver more power, allowing cars to go faster. Drivers who win support on social media can earn a “fanboost,” which increases the power available in their cars for a few seconds toward the end of the race. Starting next season, drivers will also be able to unlock a brief power boost a few times each race by taking a detour through an “activation zone.”