First of all, Formula E is not a great advancement in technology. On the contrary, current battery technology stinks. The lithium-ion batteries used in most automobiles today are heavy, bulky and short-lived. Even the Williams Advanced Engineering batteries used by Formula E machines suffer a drastic power loss after only 15 minutes of driving. They are so slow to re-charge that drivers must actually switch to another car during pit stops rather than attempt to service the batteries in the car they’re already driving.
It is difficult to sell tickets to a 30-minute event. Race fans do not want to spend more time driving to the event than they do watching it, so multiple support series will be necessary to put on a full show for paying customers. This natural barrier will remain until battery technology advances sufficiently to support longer events.
Which brings us to our second point. The ability to store energy in batteries really isn’t much better today than it was when the first electric cars were invented in the late-1880s. Electric cars are not the cars of the future. In reality, they are the cars of the past!
The fact that Formula E exists at all is a testament to the antiquated nature of electric cars. If electric cars were truly a quantum leap forward, why would they need their own race series? Why did the FIA not simply allow them to be used in Formula One, where they could whip the competition and prove their worth on an even playing field?
Electric cars aren’t in Formula One because they can’t compete in Formula One. They are not faster, more durable, more advanced, more reliable or more powerful. Three of them couldn’t even make it off the starting grid in Beijing. Electric power is not viable in open competition,
let alone superior. The very fact that a Formula E series exists at all proves that electric cars are not more advanced.
And thirdly, we must remember that interest in electric cars is attributable entirely to government subsidies. The general public doesn’t want electric cars and they never have.
China is the world’s premier emerging market for automobiles. Yet despite a subsidy of nearly 10,000 US-dollars-per-car, China’s 1.4 billion people purchased only 8,000 electric cars in 2011. This pattern is repeated around the world, with government efforts to promote electric cars in the U.S. being a perennial epic failure. At least 27 other governments around the world are subsidizing electric cars with mostly dismal results.
Eventually, people will tire of having their earnings taken against their will to prop up a failed technology that cannot compete in a fair, open market. When that day comes the carpet will be quickly yanked out from under the Formula E series. Once the government’s magical money fountain dries up, the foundation of the series goes with it.
So while I enjoyed this weekend’s opening Formula E round in Beijing and eagerly anticipate the next race, I try to remain realistic about the future of the series. Unless some nerd invents a battery the size of a Snickers bar that can produce 500 horsepower for 3 hours, the future of the series may be as limited as the future of the electric car itself.