Technology has over the past few years impacted the automotive sector, with the rise of electric vehicles (EVs) and changes in the racing market, which has in turn enabled new spaces to race (city centers are now race tracks). With new autonomous vehicles on the rise and new technologies on the horizon it is a market prone for disruption. The audience is also changing: eSports is competing with motorsport racing through more immersive games, heralding new ways to engage. Manufacturing and design have evolved, giving way to leaner processes that enable risk taking in the way cars are designed. The driver has also changed, with RoboRace entering motorsport racing, where AI drives the cars, perhaps enabling more challenging races.

In the interests of finding out more, Imperial Tech Foresight interviewed Alexander Sims, a British professional racing driver for BMW in this year’s 24 hours Le Mans, for Tech Foresight in Conversation. We asked the winner of Petit Le Mans 2017 and 2016 24 Hours of Spa what he thinks is next for EVs and the future of motor racing.

1. What are the current assumptions about EVs?
It is interesting. I feel that we are currently in a transition phase, with more of the general public starting to shift their perception of EVs. Many are starting to see them as a great option for transportation. Saying that, the general perception is still that EVs are a compromise, especially in relation to charging ability and range. However, with car companies investing more in the EV market, we are seeing really interesting technology advancement, which I believe will shift preconceptions about EV performance. Most of the assumptions about EVs apply more to some of the earlier cars than those coming on the market today.

Another hurdle that car companies are starting to challenge is affordability. There has started to be some improvements lately, but there are still relatively few low-to-mid priced vehicles that offer a sensible EV range and are comparable to a combustion engine vehicle. If you are looking to spend £15,000-20,000 on a new car, there is very little choice. Until this financial deadlock is broken, EVs will have a barrier in achieving mass adoption. I have seen a lot change in the last five years though, and am confident it is going to keep improving.

2. Why should we care about EVs?

When I started becoming interested in EVs, a little over five years ago, it was mainly about the environmental impact, but they quickly got me hooked in other ways(?). Using the car helped me realise the many benefits of EVs. For me, it is simply a better product.

A primary benefit is convenience. You can charge at home meaning that you completely eliminate unnecessary trips to the petrol station. The car is simply charged through your own electricity source during the night. I am sure people would be surprised to understand how long EVs really last.

Fuelling costs per mile for EVs in Europe are substantially cheaper than combustion engine cars. In my experience it costs around 25% of an equivalent combustion engine car.

It is a less stressful driving experience due to the one pedal driving ability of most EVs. When you release the accelerator, the car uses regenerative braking to recover the kinetic energy in the car and put it back into the battery whilst also slowing you down enough to not actually need the brake for the majority of driving situations.

As a side issue it also it reduces our consumption of oil, which in turn reduces price volatility and our reliance on political relationships with the large oil-producing nations.

I am passionate about the environmental improvements, which are huge when paired with renewable electricity generation. But I think convenience and in time, price, is what will drive adoption. I believe that in ten years’ time, EVs will be better and cheaper to run than petrol cars. The cost benefit will be instrumental in continuing to drive adoption of EVs.

3. What are some challenges we need to get over?

Inner-city charging is still a challenge. Due to the restriction of space, many people don’t have a garage where they can plug in their car. New technologies in wireless charging could become exciting options for charging cars while they are parked. For example, Professor Paul Mitcheson from Imperial’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, is working on wireless power delivery, including harvesting radiofrequency energy from ambient sources. Urban living may not warrant individual car ownership. Instead there will be several types of mobility options, such as shared car ownership, taxis and autonomous vehicles.

Another frequently discussed challenge is the National Grid and its resilience. I have read many papers on the future of this, where key scientists at the National Grid state that the baseload will actually have a positive impact if we start charging cars overnight. The strain on the electricity system will simply become more even throughout the day as during night we rarely use electricity. With new advancements in smart grids, an electricity supply network that uses digital communications technology will be able to detect and react to local changes in usage. We will also be able to balance out the current systems, ultimately enabling us to decarbonize the system. If everyone went EVs tomorrow there may be an issue, but the move to EVs is unlikely to happen overnight. I believe in the next 5-10 years there will be a massive improvement in the grid. Smart vehicles and grids can even help balance out the system. Trading electricity will support any infrequencies in the structure.

4. What is the future impact of EVs?

Realistically, the shift to EVs is likely to happen in the next 10 years. By then, I expect EVs to be the most commonly sold and used car on the road. An implicit benefit that I have seen is that EVs promote sustainable thinking about where the energy they are using comes from. It helps move the product from an invisible resource to something that people spend time engaging and thinking about, helping to fuel the conversation about renewable energy and decarbonization.

The experience of driving an EV will also no longer be discussed as a lesser experience. Even today, I believe that EVs are as fun to drive as combustion engines. In the next couple of years, we will also see autonomous cars becoming more prominent on the market. They will most likely be used on motorways or with other driving experiences that are tedious. It will be a safer and better way to drive. In the next twenty or so years, we will be surprised at our reluctance today to hand over control to autonomous cars.

 

Motorsport and the future of car driving

1. Where will human car driving go?

A car with sensors, which networks with other cars and processors, will be a safer experience than human-driven cars. By being connected to a network, autonomous vehicles (AVs) should know where other cars are and be able to predict dangerous scenarios. However, there have been some safety incidents recently. In the US, someone was killed by an Uber vehicle on an automated setting. It was a tragedy, but compare this to the amount of people dying daily in car accidents caused by human errors.

Even though AVs will be used, I still believe that people will continue to enjoy driving. The idea of being in control of a vehicle and going around tight corners is always going to be fun; not necessarily on race-tracks, but perhaps on country roads where there can be a more intimate driving experience. Perhaps car driving will be less about the everyday and instead about exciting and exhilarating experiences that are less frequent.

I also believe that with AI we may want to build embodied experiences through the AI interface with humans. As cars evolve to be more autonomous, there needs to be something that differentiates car brands from each other. Perhaps, this could be the personality that the AI inhabits and develops with humans.

2. What do you see as the future of motorsport?

I definitely see motorsport as a sport that people will continue to enjoy. It is driven by competition; people want to see winners and losers, and show their support. We are also excited about the sport as a way to see cutting-edge technology – it is crazy to think about what cars can do! What we do know from car racing is that it has been a significant way for companies to trial new technologies before transferring them to the consumer market. It enables them to test not only the technology to the limit, but also the skill of the human driving the car.

A challenge is to keep racing cars relevant to consumer cars, moving towards hybridisation whilst maintaining performance on the racetrack. The main challenge for racing cars becoming electric is the battery technology; it isn’t advanced enough to hold the amount of energy during a sensibly long race at a high speed. Energy density of petrol is high for what fits into a fuel tank – the challenge with the battery is that it only lasts 3-4 laps. A potential future technology could be hydrogen, which is a sensible technology for motorsport to start exploring.

Another exciting area is that we are seeing the younger generation starting to accept new areas of the sport, such as Formula E, compared to those aged 40+ who want the sport to remain the way it always has been. Formula E fans do not care as much about speed (120 mph compared to 180 mph), or about lack of noise. New offshoots of the sport are deemed more relevant to the younger generation as they help them connect to games such as Grand Theft Auto where races take place in the city. They also don’t have preconceptions of what Formula One or motorsport should be. In my mind, Formula E is an exciting product, with twisty circuits in cities, which normally Formula One motorsports don’t have.

3. Do you think we will engage with the sport differently?

One area that I am excited about is the thought of combining eSport with real racing. Merging the two, could be interesting. It could leverage the immersive abilities of eSport with the real race, maybe even giving people a chance to race virtually on a digital track at the same time as a race is happening.

One area where technology has made a difference is simulators. They have become a significant tool for practicing on, and the way they have improved over the last couple of years is impressive. However, one of the areas that you can’t replicate is the G Force – it makes the hair stand up on your back, and the sensation of tires on tarmac, sliding slightly. These will continue to be only experienced in real life.

The main challenge facing EVs in racing is the lack of noise. I am not a massive fan of noisy race cars because I prefer having a conversation and not needing ear plugs when I am at a racetrack. However, the noise is critical for some as it connects to speed. I am not a huge fan of artificial noises to try to replicate current cars. The quietness is a nice advantage of EVs.

4. What do you see as the future of car motorsport?

AI technology will become involved in motorsport in a wider context. Roborace, with all its potential technology, is interesting. The struggle is the lack of a human element. Who is driving around the circuit? To watch a car driving on its own is just a process that doesn’t really appeal to people. Know that someone has the expertise and mastery to drive a car is much more exciting. The human connection is missing in AI motorsport, which is key.

 

Tech Foresight in Conversation

Get in touch at techforesight@imperial.ac.uk