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The UK Showcasing Electrified Powertrain Development

by Kevin Mak | Jun 30, 2015

As the first season of the Formula E racing series drew to a close, the UK government announced its support to the UK automotive industry at its “Race to Road” conference, held at the Hilton Park Lane Hotel in London on June 26th.

The major FIA (Federation International de l’Automobile) motorsport competitions, of Formula 1 and World Endurance (“Le Mans”) sports cars, involve hybrid electric powertrains. 

  • Motorsport is the platform from which the industry can develop and test their innovations before they can be applied to road cars. 
  • Examples from Formula 1 powertrain development that have entered road car deployment include Gasoline Direct Fuel Injection and Variable Valve Timing (VVT) systems.
  • As auto makers are being forced to meet more stringent fuel economy and carbon dioxide (CO2) emission mandates, then the role of motorsport will increase. 
  • The new Formula E is no exception to such developments – but it is the world’s first pure electric racing series.  The FIA intends to use the formula to enhance the environmental reputation of the automotive industry.
  • The new formula has targeted to raise its awareness by holding its races on city circuits and bringing about closer interaction with a younger audience, such as the mobile phone app “fan boost” that adds a further 30 kW of power to popular racing drivers.
  • The last race of the first season, also held in London, was a closely fought contest that saw only one point separate the inaugural champion, Nelson Piquet Jr., and his nearest rival, Sebastien Buemi.

Exhibit 1               Nelson Piquet Jr. Winning The Inaugural Formula E Title

Nelson Piquet Jr. Winning The Inaugural Formula E Title

Source: FIA Formula E

Formula E started with a standard vehicle design using the same electric motor-generator and power electronics supplied by McLaren, the same battery pack supplied by Williams and the same chassis, body and transmission.  This is to limit the cost of running a racing team to an affordable level. 

  • Both McLaren and Williams are also regular suppliers to the Formula 1 race series.  Formula 1 cars are now hybrid vehicles featuring electric KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery Systems).  Both formulas are dominated by UK-based constructors and suppliers.
  • In the next season of Formula E, technology competition will begin with racing teams selecting different electric motor-generators, transmissions and power electronics.
  • Battery competition will follow at some stage after the fourth season – timed to coincide with the possible launch of next generation technologies, such as lithium-air chemistries, which could enable a significant increase in driving range. 
  • At present, Formula E has to provide two racing cars for each driver because of the lack of driving range from existing battery technology. 
  • Williams became the supplier of the battery pack, within just nine months of the start of the first race, because of the difficulty of its development by an unnamed OEM.
  • With their early involvement in the first season, both McLaren and Williams have a head start over foreign rivals.  However, as electric road cars are increasingly being supplied in-house, the OEMs are expected to form full constructor teams in future seasons of Formula E.  Renault has recently committed a full constructor entry for next season, having supported the current e.dams racing team during the first season.  PSA Peugeot Citroën has agreed a partnership to supply the Virgin Racing team and that it is likely that Audi will provide further support to the Abt Sportsline team.
  • Wireless charging has been considered by Formula E, but has not yet been timetabled.  Qualcomm currently provides wireless charging systems for the BMW i3 and i8 safety cars.
  • Dynamic charging (that is, charging the electric vehicle while it is in movement) is a technology that, according to Qualcomm’s General Manager of Wireless Charging, Steve Pazol, is still “decades away” from now.  As an alternative to large battery packs, this may also provide the driving range necessary for both the Formula E and electric cars of the future.
  • Strategy Analytics will soon be making its first forecast demand estimate for electric vehicle wireless charging systems.

So despite the loss of British-owned volume car manufacturers, when the Rover Group folded in 2005, the UK remains an important center automotive powertrain innovation.

  • According to the minister for UK Trade and Investment, Lord Maude, the British motorsport industry is now worth £9B (US$14B).
  • According to the SMMT (Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders), more than £10B (US$16B) of foreign investment was made in the UK automotive sector over 2012-2013.
  • APC (Advanced Powertrain Centre) UK has now approved £170M (US$267M)-worth of UK government investment, which would raise £1B (US$1.6B)-worth of total investment in UK powertrain development projects.   The APCUK aims to bring new technologies to the production stage and realize their commercialization.
  • An example of UK powertrain developments includes the “Flybrid” – essentially a flywheel system to store and release brake recuperated energy, which has been deployed on off-highway and bus applications.  Jaguar-Land Rover has also tested the system on road car concepts.  The start-up company was recently acquired by Torotrak. 
  • According to Lord Maude, some 500 buses in London deploy energy recovery systems to reduce their CO2 emissions by up to 20 percent. 
  • The key to commercialization is the ability for new technologies to serve applications outside of automotive, as well.  Williams is also developing flywheel energy recovery systems for railway applications.
  • Not only is the UK becoming a center for electrified powertrain innovation, but it is also becoming a major sales market for electric vehicles.  The UK makes up 20 percent of European electric vehicle sales volume.  In Europe, one-in-four Nissan Leaf electric cars are sold in the UK, while the UK sells more BMW i3 cars than in Germany.

However, according to the Strategy Analytics Tier 1 Vendor Regional Design Center Database, there are only 10 centers in the UK that are involved in the development of electrified powertrain systems and components.  For comparison, Germany has 17, China has 25, the USA has 37 and Japan has 41 centers. 

  • This example shows that the UK is struggling to persuade major automotive Tier 1 vendors, as well as most OEMs, to invest directly in R&D there.
  • A key stumbling block to consumer adoption of electric vehicles is battery technology.  Although there are some battery pack vendors, such as Johnson Matthey (formerly Axeon), the UK does not have the advantage of having major battery cell suppliers, such as Panasonic in Japan, where they also supply cells to the larger consumer electronics market.
  • According to the Strategy Analytics Hybrid Technologies Legislation/Support Database, the Chinese and US federal governments have offered considerable R&D grants to research institutes, OEMs and Tier 1 vendors in order to develop new technologies that enhance fuel efficiency and reduce harmful emissions.  The UK government lacks the financial resources to compete against these other countries.
  • So while the UK dominates the niche supply of motorsport technologies, the relatively small ecosystem compared to other countries may lead to difficulties for British suppliers in progressing further in commercializing technologies for the mainstream road car market. 


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