Automobiles

Formula E: The electric car race generates buzz in Malaysia

As the Formula One season ends, a new series takes its place -- but instead of internal combustion engines, these new cars pack lithium-ion batteries and motors that sound like TIE Fighters.

Aloysius Low/CNET
The lights go out and the second ever Formula E race is underway. Aloysius Low/CNET

PUTRAJAYA, Malaysia -- The first thing you notice at the second race of the inaugural Formula E season is not the searing tropical heat. If you've ever attended a Formula 1 race or seen it on TV, you'd be familiar with the blistering jet-engine roar that comes from the internal combustion engines of its superfast racing cars.

That noise, however, is conspicuously absent from the track here. "Star Wars" fans might find the sound of the powerful McLaren electric motors resembles the hum of a TIE Fighter's engines, or the loud whine of podracers from "Phantom Menace."

But as futuristic as it sounds, it's not very loud. Based on specs provided by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), which governs the Formula E and Formula 1 races, each Spark-Renault SRT_01 E has an output of just 80 decibels. A normal petrol-powered car rolling down the street checks out at a slightly softer 70dbs.

To make up for the lack of noise most people expect from a Formula-type race, Formula E has an EJ, a helmeted mascot DJ who mixes up music tracks to complement the experience. There didn't seem to be any speakers placed around placed around the short 2.5km track -- so it was relatively quiet, apart from the hum of the Formula E cars as they zoomed around the track.

Unlike the Formula 1 races, the Formula E event doesn't take place across a whole weekend, and the concerts and many thousands of spectators that help drive the Formula 1 buzz are missing. Clearly the newness of the event is a factor, but also it seems rather disadvantaged by the location, Putrajaya, which is 25km (15 miles) away from Malaysia's bustling capital city, Kuala Lumpur.

Putrajaya, a planned city with a population of a mere 68,000 residents, was designed to house the country's civil servants and plays host to the nation's ministries. Given the travel distance and shortness of the event, it looked like turnout was less than ideal on race day, but for those watching the race on TV, it was an exciting one with crashes and filled with drama -- the safety car was deployed almost right from the get-go due to an accident on the opening lap.

Format

Nicolas Prost finished first in qualifying but was pushed down to eighth as a penalty after he crashed in the first race in Beijing. Aloysius Low/CNET

Qualifying and the race happen on the same day, with the main event being only a little over an hour and spanning 31 laps. There are a total of 10 teams and 20 drivers, with two cars per team. Nine races have been scheduled so far, with the last taking place in London in June next year. Instead of fuel, the cars are powered by a 200kg 28kW/h lithium-ion battery, and drivers have to hop into a new, fully charged car midway through the race.

While the race cars are capable of hitting 225kmh (140mph), in race mode, power gets throttled from 200kw to 150kw to ensure that the cars have sufficient energy for around 15 to 16 laps. Each 888kg (around 2,000 pounds) Spark-Renault SRT_01 E car takes about 50 minutes to charge to full.

To keep things interesting, Formula E has introduced a FanBoost button that allows a 5-second increase of power during the race from 150kW to 180kW. Fans get to vote on the driver who gets to use this Mario Kart-style powerup via social media.

The FanBoost toggle can be quite an important part of the race, as all the cars for the first season of the Formula E share the same components, thus the extra increase in power can help increase the lead or with overtaking. Here in Malaysia, Bruno Senna used it to take fourth place, before unfortunately ending up in a wall on his last lap.

The race was won by Britain's Sam Bird, driving for Virgin Racing, who managed to eke 19 laps out of his first car's battery, the longest of any driver.

The 200kg lithium-ion battery is located behind the driver's seat. You can see the gearbox behind. Aloysius Low/CNET

Eco-friendliness

Formula E prides itself on the its minimal eco footprint -- the energy powering the car batteries comes from glycerin generators. Glycerin is a sweet non-toxic sugar alcohol compound made as a byproduct of biodiesel. According to Formula E, a single generator is capable of powering all 40 cars in the event.

Furthermore, instead of multiple tire changes, all Formula E cars are restricted to one set of tires per race, and Michelin, the tire supplier, will recycle the used tires for use in childrens' playgrounds in each city the ePrix takes place.

And because the cars are all electric-powered, there are no lingering fumes after the race, keeping the air clean -- apart from the smell of burnt rubber.

Wireless charging

Besides the electric racing cars, Formula E also uses the electric-powered BMW i3 and i8 as safety vehicles, but instead of leaving them plugged into the power point for charging, both automobiles have been modified to use Qualcomm's Halo, a wireless charging technology designed for domestic cars.

Halo isn't new -- back in 2012, Qualcomm had already shown off its inductive system, which works by simply parking a car equipped with a receiver plate over the charging pad. The Halo system at the Formula E event utilizes the same technology, but is significantly more refined and handles up to 20kW of power.

Qualcomm's Halo wireless charging system for cars. Aloysius Low/CNET

Of course, most homes won't exactly be able to charge a car at 20kW, so Halo supports a more standard 3.3kW. If your power grid can handle it, there's also a 6.6kW option. To some some sense of these numbers, the BMW i3 requires 6 hours for a full charge on the 3.3kW system, while only needing 3 hours or so when charged at 6.6kW.

If you're worried about loss of power through wireless charging, Qualcomm says Halo is as efficient or even better than using a power cable. Halo comes with ancillary systems that detects heartbeats in the vicinity and shuts down the charging, in the event that the family pet decides to take a nap on the charging pad.

In the future, Qualcomm hopes to put charging pads on the roads to charge the car on the go, but it may be a few years before you even see this used in a Formula E race.

The BMW i8 is used as a safety car for the Formula E race. Aloysius Low/CNET

The future of electric car racing

Besides being something for motorsports fans to watch while the Formula 1 season takes a break, Formula E hopes the technology from its race cars will trickle down into commercial vehicles. It's a logical step, but there's more to that -- Formula E is hoping its advanced tech will attract a different crowd.

At a press conference held a day before the race, Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag told reporters the race series was designed to attract a younger audience -- hence the social-media friendly FanBoost gimmick. There were also plans to distribute free tickets to school children to get them to watch the race.

"We want the kids to be fans of Formula E -- when they turn 18 and buy a car, it will be electric," he said.

Graeme Davison, Qualcomm's vice president of technologies and someone who has been working closely with Formula E, mentioned air pollution as the one of the factors he hopes electric vehicles will solve. Citing research done by the World Health Organization, Davison pointed out that total global number of vehicles will increase from 1.1 billion to 2.5 billion by 2050.

"All that congestion and pollution we're living with today in the major cities, if we don't do anything it's just going to get worse and worse," he said. "Health costs are an enormous amount of drain on major cities. If you think about respiratory and pollution related problems -- asthma in young children continues to grow at a terrible rate, and that's all triggered by pollution in the cities.

"If we as a population on this planet don't do something, we're going to continue to create these meltdown scenarios in the cities."

Electric sports cars such as the Rimac Concept One aren't meant for the average consumer, but their technologies will trickle down into more affordable vehicles in the future. Aloysius Low/CNET