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December 11th, 2008
Formula one should ditch the internal combustion engine
Now might be a good time for reflection. Does it make sense to use the petrol engine as the power source for the cars on the track. Isn't it time to switch to electric cars?
The internal combustion engine is dying. Although small improvements in efficiency are still being made, Formula 1 cars only convert about a third of the energy in the petrol into motion. This is better than the typical suburban saloon, but not by much. An electric car is much better, turning most of the energy in a battery into usable motive power. The elders of the motor racing industry know that Formula 1, exciting and innovative as it is, is doomed by the coming obsolescence of the petrol car. The yearly global circus is coming to be seen as unsustainable, both financially and environmentally. By cutting its Formula 1 presence, Honda expects to save $500m a year, an illustration of the extraordinary cost of participating in this extraordinary sport.
Are electric Formula 1 cars a possibility? Yes. Electric cars can have extraordinary acceleration, very high top speeds and a range that is only dependent on the weight of the battery. The new Tesla, designed and partly built at Lotus in Norfolk, UK has a top speed of 130 mph (and it could be more if it weren't speed limited) and an acceleration of 0-60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Its driving range is over 200 miles. Unlike a supercar of the same specifications, its fuel cost is a penny or so a mile.
Battery technology is improving all the time. The scope for continued advances is enormous. This is one of the fields where nanotechnology will make a huge difference. We need reductions in cost, charging time and weight. (However, any particular battery chemistry has an irreducible minimum weight per unit of charge - so advances will partly come from finding new chemistries that improve on the various lithium ion technologies.)
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