Formula Student and Electric Vehicles

Figure 1: The IMECHE’s 2013 Formula Student competition [Credit: or

Figure 1: The IMECHE’s 2013 Formula Student competition [Credit: Telegraph (2013)]

I forgot over the summer to put up a post commenting on the formula student competition held in July this year at Silverstone in England. So I thought, as I’ve the time over Christmas, to correct that omission.

Formula student, for those who don’t know about it, is a competition, organised by the IMECHE, open to all 3rd level institutions in which the student’s design and build their own race car. The rules are a good deal broader than those for the various professional racing events. Aside from some rules regarding the vehicles dimensions, suspension, health and safety and the requirement of student involvement at all levels of the project, it’s really a case of anything goes.

Hence the Formula student competition can have an element of the “whacky racers” with teams from all over the world coming to Silverstone with a wide variety of car designs. Some will have been built by a massive team of near full time designers (some universities let their students take their year’s industrial placement on the FS team, whereas most teams fit in the work on the car as part of a full academic year of studies) and a budget of 100,000’s of euros. One team this year showed up with a milling machine and lathe in the back of their support truck! While others will show up with a car built on a shoe string by a handful of students which either works spectacularly well….or blows up in the middle of the endurance event!

Figure 2: ETH Zurich’s Formula Student Car 2013, winner in Class 1 for that year [Credit: ]

Figure 2: ETH Zurich’s Formula Student Car 2013, winner in Class 1 for that year [Credit: Race car, 2013]

Now you may enquire what this has got to do with energy and the environment? After all isn’t this supposed to be the theme of this blog? Well a quick look at the results of the 2013 Formula Student will show you that the 1st and 2nd placed cars in the results were battery electric powered (ETH Zurich and West Saxony respectively). Furthermore 3 of the top 5 were EV’s and 5 of the top ten, despite the fact that EV’s were a minority among the cars at the event.

And indeed in certain events, notably the Acceleration, Fuel economy and Sprint events the EV’s dominated. I was on trackside for the Acceleration event and I recall that 8 of the final 10 were EV’s. About the only events that the EV’s didn’t dominate was the Endurance event, although Zurich’s EV still managed to win and only 2 of the EV’s failed to finish (consider however that the majority of cars don’t finish the endurance race, so that’s not a huge surprise).

Consequently I’m aware that many teams are secretly working on EV formula student cars for either next year’s race or for future years. Its entirely possible that within a few years the majority of cars at the Formula Student competition will be EV’s, at least those that do well that is!

Figure 3: Battery Electric Vehicle powertrain schematic [Credit: University of Pennsylvania, 2013]

Figure 3: Battery Electric Vehicle powertrain schematic
[Credit: University of Pennsylvania, 2013]

Of course these results aren’t that difficult to explain. A BEV power train has certain natural advantages over a petrol engine system. Electric motors are vastly more energy efficient (80-95% efficiency v’s 10-30% for IC engines), have better power to weight ratio’s (up to 2-5 times better) and a wider torque range.

The latter point is significant because while an IC engine delivers optimum torque only within a relatively narrow range of speeds, an electric engine delivers its maximum torque over a wider range of speeds, which means potentially you don’t need a gearbox, clutch or much else, greatly simplifying the drivetrain and producing a car that’s easier to drive, has faster acceleration rates, better braking (thanks to regenerative braking), with less need for gear changing, etc.

Figure 4: Torque v’s rpm for a range of different powertrain options [Credit: 2009 ]

Figure 4: Torque v’s rpm for a range of different powertrain options
[Credit: 2009]

Of course the big disadvantage is that of range. While the FS cars did manage to complete the events without running out of juice, I’m not sure that same would apply if you put a BEV on a formula one track (EV’s limping off the track to the pits, the tires get changed within ten seconds, but it takes 5 hours to recharge the batteries!). Indeed, the EV teams got quite cosy with one another due to their frequency of visiting the charging area between events, while the other teams it was usually few drops of petrol or E85 just prior to racing.

Formula EV

Indeed in the world of professional motor racing there are plans to introduce a new category of “Formula EV” in which full sized formula one scale vehicles running on an BEV powertrain will compete in a series of street races in several cities worldwide. The event, which it is planned will start next year, has attracted sponsorship from several major companies.

Figure 5: Renault's Formula EV vehicle [Credit: XXXX]

Figure 5: Renault’s Formula EV vehicle
[Credit:, 2013]

Real world issues

And of course we can point to activity in the real world for what is driving things on the formula student track. Universities are being asked to participate in research projects, both by governments, research councils and car companies into BEV’s, hybrids and alternative fuelled vehicles. It’s been all too easy thus for some of them to then simply use their experiences in such projects to develop a BEV powertrain for their Formula student car.

Similarly with many car companies now building both hybrids and BEV’s (indeed I would struggle to identify any major car company that doesn’t have a hybrid, EV or alternative fuelled vehicle as part of its range) there is an increasing demand for graduate engineers who have experience at working on such vehicles, which the universities are attempting to meet by getting the students involved in projects that involve EV powertrains (my renewable energy projects and low-carbon vehicle projects tend to be oversubscribed these days!).

Certainly there are limitations to what we can do with EV’s. Range and the long time it takes to recharge batteries is part of that problem as well as other issues relating to the full life cycle of BEV’s. Indeed personally I’ve long argued the problem with EV’s isn’t so much anything to do with the technology but our system of individual vehicle ownership, as I discuss on this post on “Greenblog”.

However any Jeremy Clarkson type who tells you that the reason for rejecting EV’s is a lack of performance clearly doesn’t know what he’s talking about. As the Formula Student competition shows, put an BEV and an ICEV on a level playing field and the BEV will win hands down.

Figure 5: Them was the days! [Credit: Lucy Harding ]

Figure 6: Them was the days!
[Credit: Lucy Harding]

Suffice to say that we’re well past the milk float era. Indeed I have joked that perhaps the teams with EV’s should get the Milk Board to sponsor them and have the drivers dress up as milkmen ;0


About daryan12

Engineer, expertise: Energy, Sustainablity, Computer Aided Engineering, Renewables technology
This entry was posted in efficiency, energy, future, power, transport. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Formula Student and Electric Vehicles

  1. fireofenergy says:

    I enjoyed reading this post. I hope electric vehicles gain mainstream acceptance, since they are so much more efficient. We still need lots of clean energy capacity but hopefully (with all the possible efficiency improvements) we won’t have to employ too much nuclear, in order to displace coal, as solar and wind, and especially batteries, should be able to both power humanity and produce enough power to produce more solar and wind capacity. Granted, fossil fuels will still be needed for mining, and industrial purposes, etc but this will be only a small percent compared to the fossil fueled civilian transpo and grid usage of today.
    Also, the efficiency improvements of the car can also be had with most other necessary processes via electrons and batteries in the long run.
    From here, I am trying to tell myself how humanity needs to restrain itself in order to give more to itself (instead of just promoting the molten salt reactor). I will however, continue to promote machine mass produced “dirt cheap” solar, wind and batteries, as that is our only hope for a growing and more efficient world.

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