Auto Racing Drives Toward An Electric Future In Formula-E Formula E is an all-electric auto race — like Formula 1, but battery-powered. And some of the innovation seen on the race track could eventually make it to your driveway.

With A Whirr, Not A Roar, Auto Racing Drives Toward An Electric Future

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A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Earlier this month, streets in Brooklyn closed for a road race. It's like Formula 1 but with electric vehicles. And it's called Formula E. The technology powering these race cars could wind up in your next electric car. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Three 20-something Brooklyn dwellers are standing outside this Formula E race.

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SOHAM KHADATARE: This sounds more like squealing, like some animal in pain (laughter).

SIBYLLE HORNUNG: It reminds me of a spaceship.

DOMONOSKE: They wound up here by mistake.

GRACE HOPKINS: I had told them there was a free art exhibition at Pioneer Works. And we were wrong.

DOMONOSKE: It was a car exhibition, not an art show. So Grace Hopkins, Soham Khadatare and Sibylle Hornung are trying to figure out what's up with these high-pitched sound.

HORNUNG: Are these all electric cars?

DOMONOSKE: The answer is, yes. These low-swung, swoopy cars are all battery-powered. And two-dozen of them are whizzing around on this track right by the warehouses of Red Hook. They don't look anything like a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla Model 3. But there's actually a lot of overlap. For instance, if you ask race car driver Sebastien Buemi what makes this different than Formula 1, he says every electric car owner's two favorite words.

SEBASTIEN BUEMI: You have the instant torque. You always have what you ask for.

DOMONOSKE: Instant torque, this super-fast acceleration that makes every car geek excited. If you've ever driven any electric vehicle, you've felt it. Then he points to another fundamental feature of electric vehicles, one that's all about slowing down.

BUEMI: You're much more efficient at the end because you brake with the electric motor. So you basically recover energy when you brake.

DOMONOSKE: As the car slows down, it recharges its battery. Powerful acceleration and recharging while you brake are basic features on electric vehicles, even commuter cars. And automakers say they can use Formula E as an incubator to make their technology better in a way that will eventually benefit ordinary drivers.

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DOMONOSKE: Before the race began, pit crews were hard at work. All the cars in the race used the same body and battery. But automakers who participate, from Mercedes to Nissan, can tweak the motor and software to try to gain an advantage. Tommaso Volpe is the head of motorsports for Nissan. He says this technology competition could eventually improve, say, a Nissan Leaf, particularly on things like recharging while you brake.

TOMMASO VOLPE: The more sophisticated we develop the regeneration in these cars, the better we will be able in the future to do it for the road cars.

DOMONOSKE: Electric vehicles on the road and the racetrack have been improving rapidly since this race started in 2014. Stephanie Medeiros is the head of e-mobility at ABB, which makes electric vehicle chargers and sponsors Formula E. In the first generation of Formula E cars, she says the batteries just couldn't cut it for an entire race.

STEPHANIE MEDEIROS: What would happen is the drivers would literally have to get out of the car halfway and swap cars.

DOMONOSKE: Now they're on a second generation.

MEDEIROS: So the battery technology, obviously, improved. So now we're at the point that the battery can last the entire race.

DOMONOSKE: Still, range anxiety is definitely a thing on the Formula E racetrack. At one e-prix this spring...

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UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: There's another lap. None of them have energy. This is an absolute catastrophe.

DOMONOSKE: ...Half the cars ran out of juice before the finish line. But in the next generation of vehicles, that won't happen either because the race cars will pull off and charge mid-race. It will be pit stop charging, which means waiting 10 or 15 minutes won't cut it.

MEDEIROS: We don't have the exact numbers, whether it's 30 seconds or even a minute. It'll be fast, that's for sure (laughter).

DOMONOSKE: And this is another way this Formula E race could affect ordinary drivers. Medeiros says these super-fast pit stops will eventually improve charging for all of us.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

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