With the upcoming second season of the FIA Formula E Championship taking place in Beijing on Oct. 24 and running through to the season finale double-header in London, it is worth remembering that the inaugural race began in Asia in 2014, starting with Beijing and moving to Putrajaya in Malaysia.
Asia’s major economies have been investing heavily in electric racing as far back as 2004 when China’s Ministry of Sports began sponsoring its own Formula E team.
Since then, Singapore and Indonesia have launched bids to host the FIA Formula E, supporting Formula E chief executive Alejandro Agag’s belief that these races will spark a revolution in electric cars.
Now here are a couple of questions to get you thinking.
What do you think is the likelihood this revolution will take hold?
And what do you think are the chances that, at some point, a substantial share of the vehicles on any individual country’s roads will be electric?
Well, you may be surprised to hear that the latter has already happened. What’s more, it was over a hundred years ago.
In 1900, electric vehicles accounted for around one-third of all vehicles on the roads in the United States.
Public interest in electric vehicles at that time was high, particularly for urban driving.
But it was a different revolution — that of the internal combustion engine — which took hold not long after.
The commercial genius of Henry Ford and his reliable, highly affordable Model T helped petrol vehicles take the initiative and triggered a sharp uptake in private car purchases in the US and around the world, effectively laying the foundations of the modern automotive industry.
This essentially short-circuited the development of electric motor technology within the automotive industry.
In recent years, however, interest in electric vehicles has returned, driven by increased awareness of environmental issues and major improvements in electric technologies that have helped increase performance and bring down costs.
Most major vehicle manufacturers are exploring electric or hybrid options, at least as part of their product range, and a number of high-profile companies such as Tesla Ventures are making a wholehearted effort to mount an electric challenge to petrol and diesel.
A number of Asian companies, particularly Chinese technology firms like Alibaba, Baidu and a Tencent-Foxconn partnership are also jumping on the bandwagon by responding to significant financial incentives provided by the Chinese government in order to reach an ambitious goal of five million electric vehicles on the road by 2020.
Beijing, in particular, has agreed to exempt electric cars from restrictions that prohibit drivers from taking their cars on the road on certain days.
So, are we nearing another major turning point in the history of the automotive industry?
Can Formula E and the bold entrepreneurs that are investing in electric vehicle technology inspire a new revolution in transportation?
Despite all the focus on private cars and individual consumers, the logistics industry is arguably the place where the prospects for electric vehicles are thrown into sharpest relief.
This is where the economics of the technologies are put to their toughest test, as buyers of vehicles — usually transport companies — look to find the optimal trade-off between operating performance (including various factors such as reliability, speed and load) and total cost (taking into account both the purchase price and the running and maintenance costs over a vehicle’s life-time).
The power of branding for buyers of commercial vehicles plays a lesser role (although one manufacturer, and their muscular celebrity ambassador from Brussels, may disagree) and design is only important if it adds to a vehicle’s functionality.
Deutsche Post DHL Group, the world’s biggest transport company, has committed to improve its carbon efficiency, with the company’s vehicle fleet an important factor.
Electric is highly likely to play a big role in that effort.
In Asia Pacific, DHL Express is modernizing transport fleets region-wide to employ new vehicles with cleaner technology and better fuel efficiency which continues to yield CO2 success particularly in Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and China.
In Japan, DHL Express introduced a “green” fleet of electric commercial vehicles in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district for pickup and delivery services as part of its GoGreen environmental program while China, India, Malaysia and Singapore expanded and upgraded their fleet of trucks, vans and scooters which operate on cleaner technology, alternative fuel and more energy-efficient units such as compressed natural gas/liquefied petroleum gas, hybrid and electric powered variants.
Last year was exemplary, with DHL Express Taiwan testing the “zero-emission transport system’, a fleet of electric scooters which are charged via a solar charging station, a one-of-a-kind innovation in the logistics industry — unlike electric scooters which are charged with conventional grid power which emits CO2.
The station needs no connection to local utilities, drawing its entire power needs from its own array of solar panels.
Our positive experience so far has also highlighted some of the major challenges that still hold us back.
Range remains a challenge, with electric vehicles still contrasting unfavorably with conventional fuel types for operations over long distances or intense daily delivery schedules.
However, over time, this could be addressed through improvements in charging infrastructure or better battery capacity.
More than entertainment
In both of these areas, we hope that Formula E will inspire technological change and development.
For example, improvements that teams will inevitably make to car batteries will ideally feed into the broader market.
Partners of Formula E could also significantly broaden the appeal of electric vehicles as they work toward developing innovative charging technologies.
However, even as purchase prices are coming down, the overall costs may still be higher for many types of transport operations.
One reason for this could be that many manufacturers are simply adapting their petrol or diesel vehicles to accommodate an electric battery, as opposed to designing vehicles to perform optimally on an electric platform.
Despite these challenges, we still share Formula E’s enthusiasm about electric technology.
We acquired a company last year that produces an electric vehicle (the StreetScooter) specifically to meet our delivery requirements in cities and will increase our electric fleet by at least 500 vehicles in 2015.
Formula E is not just showcasing the capabilities of the latest generation of high-performance electric cars, it’s also building on its mass-market appeal and its commercial partnerships to support other platforms and projects to promote electric technology.
The FE School Series, with the support of UK-based charity Greenpower, invites schools at race locations to build and race with their own electric race car, promoting sustainable engineering and technology among future generations.
Whether a real revolution is under way that will pose a serious threat to conventional fuel technologies is an open question.
And we are still a long way from the days when 30 percent of vehicles will be electric.
However, anyone who has watched a Formula E race will be under no doubt about this: the race to the future is well and truly on, and that future is going to be more electric than ever before.
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