Assessing the impact of Formula E electric racing

spark-renault-srt-01e-300-170.jpg The fledging FIA Formula E electric car racing series is still 10 months away from its first race – scheduled to take place on 20 September 2014 in Beijing – but the organisers are already keen to assess the impact that their upcoming championship might have on the general public, and on attitudes towards electric vehicles in general.

Business services firm Ernst & Young has been busy delving into the question, and released its findings today at a press conference held in the City of London.

According to Ernst & Young’s projections, the positive associations created by Formula E could lead to a substantial increase in the sales of electric cars around the globe – by which it means the kind of electric cars designed to whiz ordinary families from A to B rather than helmeted racers from start-line to chequered flag. It estimates an additional 52 million to 77 million electric cars will be sold over the next 25 years, as racing helps to stamp out notions of electric cars as slow or undesirable appliances.

“There are a lot more sports fans than environmentalists,” noted Formula E founder and chief executive Alejandro Agag, arguing that the upcoming races will help to galvanise interest in EVs among unprecedented numbers of people.

If the future resembles the top end of Ernst & Young’s projections, with 77 million extra EVs sold by virtue of Formula E’s exposure, the global knock-on effects would be considerable. The advisory firm predicts the creation of 42,000 permanent jobs, the saving of four billion oil barrels – equivalent to the UK’s total crude consumption over the past 2.5 years – plus a reduction in CO2 emissions of 900 million tonnes – roughly twice the UK’s current annual output. The company also suggests a €25bn saving in healthcare costs and boosted productivity through improved urban air quality.

Those future figures should probably be swallowed with copious pinches of salt. Juan Costa Climent, EY’s Global Climate Change & Sustainability Services Leader, who presented the findings, admitted that the company is not accustomed to making such far-reaching assessments of economic and social factors. “We focus normally on financial performance, not impact on society,” he said. Cryptically, he added that he would rather be “vaguely right than precisely wrong.”

Ernst & Young’s analysis also notes that Formula E’s impact will vary considerably according to the base level of EV sales. Costa Climent described three scenarios – with low, moderate and high uptake of electric cars – any of which may materialise over the coming quarter century. He noted that the impact of Formula E will become less significant if electric cars prove more popular, with the lesser figure of 52m additional sales corresponding to a world in which electric propulsion accounts for 50% of the car market by 2050 – the surprisingly bullish “moderate” scenario.

However EVs fare in future, Costa Climent added, the most significant impact of electric racing is likely to come in the first few years, while consumer attitudes towards electric cars are still in flux and largely based on ignorance rather than experience. Formula E’s arrival next year is unlikely to swing the world from the low to the high uptake scenario, Costa Climent said, but it is poised to make a small contribution in that direction.

Car maker Renault certainly hopes that the Spark-Renault SRT_01E car – the F1-style single-seater that will be used by all 10 Formula E teams next year – will help to create positive associations with its more modest electric cars, such as the Renault Zoe hatchback and Twizy urban runabout.

Other sponsors also hope to make marketing hay from Formula E’s 10-race championship, which will bring racing to directly to city centres in various countries around the world.

Logistics firm DHL, which is arranging transport for the Formula E teams, hopes to underscore its own efforts to reduce the footprint of its operations – which have cut the average CO2 required to deliver a parcel by 30% since 2007. To trim the impact of Formula E’s travelling circus, freight will be largely moved by sea rather than air, two sets of equipment will be maintained to avoid moving everything all around the globe, and even the cars will be dismantled between races to allow more efficient transportation. DHL’s Katharina Tomoff also added that alternative fuels will be used wherever feasible.

In little more than a year, Formula E has gone from a nebulous idea to an impending championship with cars, teams, drivers and a provisional race calendar. The series is set to begin in Beijing in September 2014 and conclude in London in April 2015, taking in Putrajaya in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Punta del Este in Uruguay, Buenos Aires, Los Angeles, Miami, Monte Carlo and Berlin along the way. Whatever the outcome of the races, it seems certain that they will be noticed by a great many people, due to their inner-city locations if nothing else.

“Originally, we didn’t know what would be the reaction of city Mayors,” said Formula E’s Alejandro, “but they have welcomed us into the hearts of their cities. Probably because we don’t make as much noise [as F1] – though we do make some!”

While electric cars like Renault’s Zoe and Nissan’s Leaf may be as good as silent, Formula E spectators will experience as much as 80dB from brakes, tyre roar, transmission whine and hard-working electric motors. That’s loud enough to rate as “annoying” under industrial noise regulations, but the organisers no doubt hope that “exciting” will be the more common reaction.

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