Spark Blog Notes from the Spark Team

May 14, 2012

EVs from a Racer's View: Q&A with Lord Paul Drayson

Electric auto racing is here – and it’s an “all-new spectacle” that shouldn’t be compared to traditional motorsports, says Lord Paul Drayson, driver/team owner of Drayson Racing Technologies.

Drayson is a key player in the Federation International de l’Automobile’s plans for Formula E, a soon-to-launch racing championship for zero emission, high-performance electric vehicles (EVs).

The idea may bring to mind images of goofy looking golf carts humming around a track at speeds that would make a mall security guard happy. But Drayson and his colleagues have other ideas. 

We caught up with Drayson this week as his radical Lola-Drayson B12/69EV—decked out in traditional British racing green livery—was making its North American debut at the 2012 EV Symposium inside the Qualcomm booth. 

The symposium’s show floor featured everything electric, from cars and motorcycles to cables and converters. But it was the B12/69EV, located at the entrance to the event that stole the show. Sure, the car’s electric, but it delivers a very unEV-like 850 horsepower—about 300 horsepower more than 2011's Le Mans winner. That’s enough to propel the car from 0 to 100 mph in 5.1 seconds, and give it a top speed of 200 mph.  Besides, it just looked fast.

The B12/69EV is the first ever EV that uses motorsport principles in the design of the chassis, Drayson says. Drayson -- the former co-founder and CEO of Powderject Pharmaceuticals turned UK Minister for Science and Innovation turned veteran of American Le Mans Series racing -- explains that from the car’s cockpit forward, it’s a standard petrol-fueled Le Mans prototype racer. But from the cockpit back, it’s something completely new: an engine with four electric motors, battery cells, and regenerative dampers (e.g., shocks and struts are dampers) that help recharge the battery.

Because of the tremendous amount of energy used to power a racecar, today’s battery technologies cannot power EV races for more than 20 minutes. That's why Formula E will feature 15-minute sprint races. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be even more exciting than traditional motorsports. “It should be bold, in your face and engaging,” Drayson says excitedly, as if envisioning the event in his head.

Since electric cars are “sophisticated computers on wheels, you can stream massive amounts of data from the cars and send them to the cloud or a server at the track, and allow fans to engage with the cars while they’re racing,” he says. “For instance, fans could select views from inside the cars or they could ‘vote’ for favorite drivers, and drivers with the most votes could ‘earn’ extra horsepower for 20 seconds.”

This type of engagement is critical, particularly if motorsport racing is to evolve and attract future generations of fans, Drayson says. And much of the interaction could be done on a cellphone. “Mobile devices are fantastic vehicles for convincing people that solutions to climate change—such as EV racing —can be interesting and exciting,” he says.

And the races may not always be short. Wireless EV charging, like Qualcomm's Halo technology, could allow the cars to draw an electric charge from the track without actually touching the road surface – dynamic charging or charging-on-the-move as it will become known. Every car will receive the same amount of power, so it will come down to EV motor efficiency and design as well as driver skill.  And races could, theoretically, go on for hours.

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