The electric cars of the future

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While electric cars have long been talked about as a possibly rather dull solution to the need to reduce carbon emissions, few people expected the whizzy world of motor racing to provide the thrust for their emergence into everyday life.

However, Formula E, the new racing series being launched by the FIA, motorsport's governing body, is to begin a 10-race programme in cities including Rome and Rio de Janeiro next year.

Lord Drayson, the former science minister who runs one of the first teams to sign up, expects this to pave the way for all-electric cars to account for 50pc of new car sales by 2020. Britain is now leading the way in much of the technology.

"Electric cars will be another example of where motorsport has introduced a new technology which has gone on to be applied more generally," he says.

"Motorsport has a very important role in accelerating innovation in these areas and making these new clean technologies cool and exciting, rather than being seen as dull and boring.

"The first times a rear-view mirror and disc brakes were used on a car were in a race, while other technologies we now take for granted, such as four-wheel drive, also started in racing.

"The thing that will be great about Formula E from cities' point of view will be that it will be a great platform from which to promote the adoption of electric cars.

"The events will attract a lot of new interest and will redefine what people believe that an electric car can do."

Drayson, 52, is the former chief executive of Powerject Pharmaceuticals, which was sold for £550m in 2003 to America's Chiron Corporation, now part of Novartis (Berlin: NOT.BE - news) .

A motor racing fanatic who grew up near Brands Hatch and has raced motor cars professionally, his Drayson Racing Technologies firm, based near Oxford, this month became the first team to join the new championship.

The company has sponsorship from US technology group Qualcomm, which will also help develop "dynamic" wireless electric vehicle charging technology, which allows the continuous charging of electric vehicles while they are moving.

"We'll be wirelessly charging electric race cars first in the pit and then on the track," says Drayson. "We can see the opportunity to pilot this technology in cities on race tracks.

"Races will take place and then, after the race is finished, you can have electric buses going around the circuit. That will then give cities confidence in this technology, allowing it to roll out."

Drayson believes 2013 will be a pivotal year for electric cars in the UK, with the launches of the Tesla S and BMW (Xetra: 519000 - news) i-series.

"The usual journey new technology goes through is that when it's first announced you get huge interest and therefore hype and exaggeration over its potential," he says.

"Quite soon, people realise that the technology at that stage is not living up to the hype, because it never can, and then you get disillusionment and it overshoots on the downside, too.

"As a technology entrepreneur, you need to be able to see past that, because, after getting into that slough of despond, the technology reaches a level, a solid base. It starts to grow from there, becomes established and you get ubiquity.

"You have to have the ability to ride that wave through to the point where you have a solid floor to where the market is and you start to grow and I think you're starting to see that happen."

Drayson believes the problems dogging electric cars in the UK are largely based around their expense, compared with conventional cars.

"You haven't got the economies of scale and we haven't been through the learning process to get down the cost curve with developing and making electric cars in the way we have with 125 years of making the internal combustion engine," he says.

"But it will happen and in a few short years I believe electric cars will be outperforming internal combustion engine cars."

He believes improvements in battery chemistry, motor technology and in reducing weight will help transform the cost and performance equation that fuels consumer demand.

The firm also intends to demonstrate the abilities of its car with an attempt at the land speed record for electric cars.

The need for technological advances in electric cars is urgent, with European legislation requiring new cars from 2020 to not produce more than 95 grams of CO₂ per kilometre.

However, Drayson believes climate change will not actually be the driver of the adoption of electric cars and associated technologies.

"It's going to be pollution in cities," he says. "Because city pollution, whether in Beijing or London, is a problem and growth in respiratory disease and asthma in children is increasingly being linked to long-term exposure to small particle pollution.

"We've got to reduce the impact that private transport is having and the electric car, using clean, renewable technology, is the answer to that."