Electric Future

Volkswagen I.D. R at Pikes Peak. [Photo credit: Volkswagen]

Volkswagen I.D. R at Pikes Peak. [Photo credit: Volkswagen]

By Jack Webster & Eddie LePine

Brace yourselves, for what you knew in the past as motorsports is in the process of changing in ways that most never saw coming. The future is now and the future is electric whether you are prepared for it or not – and whether you like it or not.

Electric automobiles are certainly not a new or recent innovation in the transportation field. They have been around for almost 200 years – yes, almost 200 years. Although some of the records are lost to history, we know that in 1828 Anyos Jedlik invented an early type electric motor and created a small model car powered by his new invention. In 1834, a Vermont blacksmith named Thomas Davenport built a similar vehicle which operated on an electrified track. In 1835 Professor Sibrandus Straitingh from the Netherlands and his assistant Christopher Becker from Germany also created an electric car, powered by non-rechargeable batteries.

The first practical electric car had to wait for the invention of rechargeable batteries, which was accomplished in 1859 by French inventor Gustave Trouve, who developed the lead acid battery which could be recharged and reused.

The first practical electric car was developed in 1890 by William Morrison, who built a six- passenger vehicle capable of reaching 14 miles per hour. By 1895, consumers began to devote attention to electric vehicles in America, while in Europe electric vehicles had been in common use for almost 15 years.

So, what happened? Why aren’t we all driving electric cars by now, a full 20 years into the 21st century?

The answer: The world wasn’t ready then.

At the turn of the century, acceptance of electric cars was slowed by a number of factors, not the least of which was the lack of an infrastructure for the recharging of the car’s batteries. In the US by 1900 a full 40% of automobiles were powered by steam, 38% by electricity and only 22% by gasoline. Once roads were improved and people could easily travel longer distances, the electric car began to decline in popularity, mostly due to its limited range. People now had roads to drive on and wanted to be able to travel farther and farther from home (and be able to return). In 1912, Charles Kettering invented the electric starter for gasoline powered automobiles, making operating a gasoline powered car easier than ever – no more hand cranking to start the engine.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of electric cars was brought on by Henry Ford, who introduced the automotive world to mass production, putting the ownership of a gasoline powered car within in the reach of the average consumer. By 1912, an electric car cost almost double the price of a gasoline powered car.

So, a combination of price, range, infrastructure and cheap gasoline hastened the demise of the electric car at the beginning of the 20th century and the rebirth of interest in electric transportation would not become popular again until near the end of the century.

There were attempts at electric cars in the late 1950’s – American Motors came up with a car with a “self-charging” battery, and other companies worked on developing various types of electric powered vehicles, but few, if any, ever came on the market. On the whole, gasoline powered cars were large, powerful and comfortable machines and fuel economy was not a factor in the minds of consumers – gas was cheap.

Perhaps the most famous electric car of the 20th century was an “off road” vehicle developed by General Motors in 1971 – the Lunar Roving Vehicle which was first carried to the Moon and driven on the surface by the Apollo 15 astronauts.

Thanks to Apollo, electric cars were back in the headlines and in the “can do” spirit of the Apollo era in American history, there was perhaps the hope that the development of electric cars would once again move forward.

That was not to be, however, for after the so called “fuel crisis” of the 1970’s (which was solved when higher gas prices prevailed), people (and Americans in particular), abandoned fuel-efficient small cars and gravitated toward gas guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs in record numbers. The automakers certainly encouraged this, as the profit margins on large vehicles were much better than on compact cars. Besides, if you remember the 1970’s, who would want to own or drive a Chevy Vega or Ford Pinto?

The 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and the early part of the 1980’s – they were thirty plus years of motor racing’s “golden age” with hero drivers, legendary cars, historic tracks and the largest crowds in the history of the sport. The cars were simple (yet dangerous), costs were reasonable (compared to today) – and it seemed the party would never end.

But all good things must come to an end, and in retrospect, by the end of the 1980’s the “golden age” of racing had faded into history.

The 1980’s brought huge money into racing, and the television coverage motorsports enjoyed did not go unnoticed by the auto manufacturers and sponsors, who increased their footprint across all forms of racing, from sports car racing to Formula One. With that bigger involvement came more complexity, more tech, more personnel, more engineers, more everything.

What was once a sport pretty much populated by privateers with modest budgets and some manufacturer support ballooned into the massive professional sport we see today. Cars became more complex and it took more people to prepare and run them both at the track and back at the shop. Throughout the 1990’s and into the 21st century, racing became very technical, very complex and very expensive.

Ok, so we know all of this. Racing is expensive, has always been expensive, and the advent of heavy involvement by the manufacturers has made it even more so. Things have been going along pretty well, right?

Fast forward to the present day. We are seeing a very rapid transformation of the auto industry, right before our very eyes. We need to see it, and brace for the impact that transformation is going to have on motorsport.

We cannot be like Eastman Kodak – once the worldwide leader in photography, now bankrupt and a shadow of its former self. Why? Because they refused to see the writing on the wall – which was directly in front of them. Did you know that Kodak scientists literally invented the digital camera back in the 1970’s? Did you also know that they put it on the back shelf while they continued to promote conventional silver halide chemical photography, which was their core business? Did they think they could hold off the future? Did they not realize that digital photography would soon rule the planet, leaving conventional photography (and Eastman Kodak) in the dust? Surely someone there knew what was going to happen in the future, but they went about their merry way, satisfied that if they ignored the future, or pretended that it was not coming at them, that somehow, someway, the status quo would continue to live on.

They were wrong.

We began to see the writing on the wall for the future direction of motorsports about the turn of the century, in 1999, when Audi made their presence known in international endurance racing in a big way. First with the Audi R8 LMP, and then later on with the technical marvels R10, R15 and R18, Audi not only literally dominated sports car racing for well over a decade, they fundamentally changed the DNA of sports car racing. Their professionalism, their technical expertise and their massive infusion of money all altered sports car racing forever. Their final prototype racer, the R18 e-tron quattro (5 versions of which raced from 2012 through 2016), was the first Audi race car to feature an electric hybrid drive system and gave us a glimpse of the future direction racing would take. Each new generation of the R18 e-tron quattro advanced the technology of electric propulsion in race cars and the final versions looked and performed like something out of Star Wars. They were works of science fiction come to life. They LOOKED like the future.

Their goals accomplished (many times over), and with the tightening of budgets from parent company Volkswagen due to the huge expense of the “dieselgate” scandal (that’s a whole other story), Audi pulled the plug on their very successful prototype racing program. They did continue to race, on a much smaller scale, both with their own factory effort in the German DTM series and multiple factory supported customer racing programs. But the Apollo like space program that had been put in place for their assault on the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans was over.

Not only did Audi withdraw from the world stage, so did their sister brand Porsche (also wholly owned by the Volkswagen Group). After coming back to the World Endurance Championship and winning all there was to win in the top prototype class, including Le Mans, Porsche also pulled the plug and took their expensive toys home.

But these two racing giants, Audi and Porsche, were not to be out of the game for very long. Racing was a major part of their DNA. Almost as soon as they departed the top class of the internal combustion racing scene, both manufacturers embarked on their path to the future – electric car racing via the FIA Formula-e Championship, where they remain to this day, pouring lots of resources (i.e. – money) into an electric future. Also, both Audi and Porsche have produced and are selling electric powered street cars, with many more models to come. They know their future will be built on kilowatts, not horsepower.

In 2018, the parent company of Audi and Porsche, Volkswagen Group, built an all-electric prototype race car and set out to show the world what was possible with modern electric car technology. Their Volkswagen ID. R, driven by Romain Dumas, was blazingly fast and set track records at both Pikes Peak and the Nürburgring. This car, perhaps more than any other yet seen by race fans, is a likely precursor to all electric sports racing prototypes of the near future. If you have not seen the footage of the I.D. R’s lap around the Nürburgring, do yourself a favor and watch it. It is astounding.

Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche are just the latest examples of auto makers who have seen the future and have made a commitment to it. Many others are following, or are soon to follow in their footsteps. If they do not, they are destined to join others on the ash heap of failure who did not listen to the voice of the future calling throughout history.

Racing is going to change so much in the next few years that from the perspective of today, in 10 years (perhaps much sooner), you will not recognize it at all. The internal combustion engine has had a good run, but that is coming to an end. Due to current circumstances (for example the current pandemic and the economic uncertainty it is causing worldwide), that change is going to be accelerated to a degree that was unthinkable just a year ago.

Almost all of the major manufacturers (General Motors and Mercedes Benz to name just two) have stopped all future development of internal combustion engines. They have diverted all their R&D funds to electric cars. Volkswagen Group, currently the largest car manufacturer in the world, is in the process of spending over 60 Billion dollars (yes, Billion) to retool and gear up for an electric car future.

Take a look at Tesla. The company didn’t even exist until 2003. It was founded by Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning (not Elon Musk, as most people think – he was employee #4) as a technology company and independent automaker, with the goal of offering electric cars at affordable prices to the average consumer. Have they succeeded? It would certainly appear so. They are currently the world’s largest manufacturer of electric powered passenger cars on the planet. Their vehicle sales increased 50% from 245,240 units in 2018 to 367,849 units in 2019. Just this year, the company surpassed the one million mark in electric cars produced and for the first time recorded four profitable quarters in a row. The major automakers have taken a look at Tesla and realized that they have some major catching up to do. Tesla opened everyone’s eyes to the future of the auto industry, and now they are all going flat out to stay in the game.

Just like the Ford Model T back in 1912 killed the electric car because it couldn’t compete with the Model T on price, within the next 5 years (or sooner), the price of an electric car will be equal to or LESS than the cost of a new gasoline powered car. For the mass market, that will become the tipping point, the point at which we will see the end of fossil fueled cars. Every year, technical advances are being made on the only other thing people seem to be concerned about when it comes to electric cars – range. Within a couple of years, the range of an electric car before needing recharging will increase to such an extent that it will not even be an item of discussion any longer.

And motorsports? As long as there are cars of any sort, there will likely be racing, but in the future (and the very near future at that), you are going to see some dramatic changes. Already an off road all electric rally series is in the works, and the FIA Formula-e series continues to grow and prosper, with more manufacturers signing up every season. How long before we see an all electric 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring or 24 Hours of Le Mans? Those events going all electric are not as far in the future as you might think.

Some people say “But I will never watch an electric car race, because there is no NOISE associated with those cars.” Remember when you first saw the Audi R10 race? We certainly remember when we saw it on track. That car was so quiet that you could hear the wind whistling over the bodywork and hear the gears working in the gearbox. We certainly got used to that, didn’t we? We came to take the Audi silence for granted, as a sign of progress, a sign of the future. Those cars – the R10, R15 and R18 – were all quiet, but they were awesome to watch in person! We didn’t realize it at the time, but perhaps Audi was laying the groundwork for our electric future in motorsports, silence and all.

The future is right around the corner. Enjoy the ride.

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