Once upon a time, nobody knew which power plant was best suited to the horseless carriage. Some people (the Stanley twins for example) thought steam power was the way to go. Steam engines worked well in the iron horse (not to be confused with the steel horse Jon Bon Jovi rides), but despite their excellent range and silent power plant, long periods required to pre-heat the boiler made them impractical for private transportation. Electric motors were common in the early 20th century; they offered the quiet of steam power without the pre-heat time but had a fatally short range. A few brands gave the new-fangled internal combustion engines a try, but despite their quick start-ups and long range, who would want to drive something so noisy?
Electric motors are making something of a comeback on the road. The Tesla Model S was named Motor Trend's 2013 Car of the Year. The Chevy Volt was named 2011 North American Car of the Year at the North American International Auto Show. That same year the Nissan Leaf was named the European Car of the Year. Suffice to say the technology has made some improvements in terms of batteries, capacitors, and motors.
I would be remiss to not mention from whence that wattage comes. Most of the sources of electric power are just as (if not more) controversial than gasoline. The economics and politics of coal, natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear fission aside, oil is a finite resource which we will eventually deplete. Frankly, I find the prospect of another Deepwater Horizon to be less appealing than that of another Fukushima Daiichi.
This being a motorsports blog, it seems appropriate to consider where electric cars could perform. Even the best electric cars with the longest ranges take hours to "refuel;" thus eliminating any form of motorsports that requires a live pit stop. Electric dragsters lack the spectacular noise of top fuel, but also lack the oil downs that keep drag racing off live television. Electric sprints and midgets would not need push trucks, and could swap battery packs before the feature. Electric rally cars could change batteries after stages.
There's also the question of which type of electric motor would belong in racing. Most electric racecars today use brushed DC motors because they're cheap. Electric passenger cars use a 3-phase AC induction motor because they don't have brushes, which grind away over time. Brushless DC motors are emerging from their infancy, which means they're still pricey; they can last as long as an AC motor and lose less energy to heat. Brushless DC and AC induction motors would probably be better suited for premier level formulae, while series focused on cost control could use brushed DC motors.
The FIA's new Formula E (or e-Prix) series has drawn controversy. I don't mind the quieter racecars; I too marveled at Audi's quiet diesels. The problem is the pit stop format. When the battery dies the driver is expected to pull into the pits, egress his primary vehicle, complete a 100-meter dash, and ingress fully charged car. I'm not making this up! Check fia.com if you don't believe me! Are the safety problems here not obvious? Did people forget why the Le Mans start was eliminated? Are the organizers unaware that a driver wearing a full-face helmet cannot look down to see his or her own seatbelts? If an electric vehicle is expected to lack the range to complete the race distance, either shorten the races or eliminate live pit stops.
Fuel cells deserve a quick mention. "Fuel cells" in this context will refer to devices without moving parts that convert chemical energy directly into electricity, not fancy gas tanks. A car powered by a hydrogen fuel cell would have the range and ease of refueling of a gas-powered car, and still use electric motors for locomotion. Unfortunately, this is not a viable option for transportation until someone finds a way to produce electricity cheaply enough that large-scale water electrolysis becomes profitable. Methanol fuel cells exist, but at the moment they cannot power anything bigger than a laptop.
Fun fact: Saab was developing a steam engine as recently as the 1980's, no word on why the project was abandoned.
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