Formula E Racing Is Shaping the Future of Electric Cars

July 16, 2019, 11:10 PM UTC

When it first debuted in 2014, skeptics wondered whether Formula E would last beyond its first season. An all-electric racing series, the contrarian line went, could never draw meaningful audience or sponsor support when the screaming, gas-powered motors of Formula One or NASCAR were so clearly beloved.

Five years later, those skeptics have been proven wrong. Formula E just completed its fifth season with last weekend’s races in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Porsche and Mercedes are entering the series, and the public is paying more attention, too: Formula E is now covered extensively by news outlets from CNN to to U.K. tabloid The Sun.

But most importantly, Formula E is having a direct impact on the electric vehicles you might see on the street. That was always the overriding purpose of the racing series, according to Sylvain Filippi, managing director and CTO of Formula E team Envision Virgin Racing.

“The mission behind Formula E is to do two things,” he said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo. “First, to really accelerate the R&D behind electric cars—to really make the range better, the power better, the efficiency better. And second, it’s about marketing and communication—there’s no point developing all this amazing tech if nobody knows about it.”

But word is certainly getting around. According to Filippi, more than 400 million people watch the Formula E championship each year, surely drawn in part by one visceral appeal that gas-guzzlers can’t match. And, because of their lack of emissions, Formula E races can be held in picturesque city centers, from Paris to Hong Kong to Mexico City.

Filippi, who has been working on electric cars since 2007, says the endurance of Formula E comes down to a mix of foresight and conviction. “People like me were absolutely, 100% convinced this would be a runaway success, because it’s all about surfing the perfect wave. We can have different views on where mobility is heading, but for sure it’s going to be electric, and for sure it’s going to become autonomous, and all these things are going to happen because they make sense.”

“So motorsport, as an entertainment platform, but also as an R&D testbed for these technologies, has to go that way,” said Filippi. “It makes sense.”

The R&D dynamic of Formula E follows in the tracks of its Formula 1 model. To win the Formula E series, teams are constantly pushing to get more speed and distance out of their motors and batteries. Those innovations can make it into street-legal cars relatively quickly, according to Filippi.

For example, Formula E has pushed to increase the power throughput of its vehicles to 900 volts, as much as three times as high as current electric cars on the street. That upgrade proved viable and safe on the track, and now it’s heading to the highway. “The next generation of electric cars coming from Porsche and Audi [and others], will run at 800 or 900 volts, too.” That means both faster charging and more efficient use of power.

If you want to see the next wave of innovation from Formula E’s teams, you won’t have to wait long: Season 6 kicks off in November, with a race in Saudi Arabia.

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