It’s not quite January, but it’s close enough. The month is named for Greek God Janus, who has two faces: one looks to the past and one that looks to the future. The off-season is a natural time to look both ways. Let’s look forward, not at 2018, but even further. Let’s look at the future of NASCAR (and maybe motorsports in general). It involves an always-touch topic with NASCAR fans: changes to the car. In particular, the possibility of electric race cars in NASCAR.
Terminology. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are vehicles that run entirely on motors with no internal combustion engine (ICE). There are only about a dozen models of EV you can buy in this country. Hybrids use a combination of drive technologies, usually an internal combustion engine (ICE) and supplemental motors. Some, like the newest Prius, can be switched to a true EV mode, but mode automatically call on the engine or the motor when it makes sense for the car. There are a lot of hybrids available, including the Toyota Prius, the Honda Insight, and hybrid versions of classics like the Camry, the Escalade, the Malibu, the Accord and so on.
Attitudes Toward Cars are Changing
We are motorsports fans fundamentally because we like cars. But the world is changing and so are people’s relationships with cars. Young people prefer calling an Uber to driving themselves. Some don’t even bother getting drivers’ licenses. And young people are more concerned with how cars impact the planet. They produce greenhouse gases (which contribute to climate change) and particulate matter (which contributes to air pollution.) Petroleum is a limited resource and the market is volatile. Remember $4/gallon gas? It wasn’t that long ago.
Race Tech is a UK magazine. It’s publisher, William Kimberley, wrote an editorial contrasting the attitude toward cars in the United States vs. that in the rest of the world while he was here, visiting SEMA.
I cannot help but wonder whether we are seeing a complete divergence when it comes to motorsport between Europe and North America… mature technologies (ie the internal combustion engine) is simply not under threat here [the US]. I cannot hear the mayor of a major city, even in California, coming out against the car as we are experiencing in the UK and Europe.
Kimberley’s visit to the States was in October 2017. Just this month, California Assemblymember Phil Ting announced he would introduce a bill to prohibit vehicles that use fossil fuels from traveling on the state’s roads, effective in 2040. California Governor Jerry Brown asked the California Air Resources Board (which has the ironic acronym CARB) to develop a plan to allow only zero-emission vehicles to be sold in the state. They haven’t set a time scale, but it would likely be 2030.
Let’s say they enact one or both of the two laws mentioned above. Does that mean the end of motorsports in California? Not because of the law. You’re not buying racecars in California, nor will you be racing on state roads. But those aren’t the only issues.
Why Are Cars Targets?
California is considering these extreme measures because they don’t want Los Angeles to turn into Beijing, where air pollution is so bad it takes an estimated three years from their life expectancies.
The air pollution in Beijing is bad enough to shut the entire city down on some days. Beijing (and London, Paris, Athens and Delhi) are trying to mitigate the problem by only allowing in cars with even or odd license plates in on alternate days, or eliminating cars from certain areas of the city all together.
The good news is that it works: air pollution goes down when these measures are implemented. The bad news is that cars become the villains. The map below shows laws already enacted or in process that prohibit the sale of gas- or diesel-powered cars, or limits where they can be driven. The cities with stars (including Seattle, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Mexico City and Quito, Ecuador in this hemisphere) plan to ban gas and diesel cars from “large parts of their cities” by 2030.
Why Do We Care What China and India Do?
Cars sell in a global marketplace, whether you like it or not. That won’t change. About 78.6 million cars will be sold around the world this year. We (the US) are a huge market: 17.1 million of those will be bought the US. But the US market isn’t as big as, or have the growth potential of China or India. We constitute 324 million people out of 7.6 billion people on the planet. That’s 4.3%. China has 1.4 billion people (18.4%) and India 1.3 billion (17.1%). The EU is 6.7%.
China is investing heavily in Electric Vehicles.
- China makes and sells more Electric Vehicles (EVs) than any other country
- Chinese buyers purchased more than 3x as many EVs than American buyers in 2017 — and more than the rest of the world’s buyers all together.
- The government spent $1.3 billion to convert 70,000 Beijing taxis to electric.
- China wants to cut down on the huge amounts of petroleum they import each year
How does that affect us?
- China will ban the production and sale of gas-powered cars in the country soon (possibly 2030)
- China taxes import cars at 10x the rate we do here: Chinese buyers purchase more GM cars than Americans do.
That’s why GM and Ford have to invest in electric and hybrid vehicles as well. In addition to the heft of the Chinese market, every major city is struggling with the same problems. China wants technological leadership in EVs because that’s the marker of the future.
- Honda, one of the largest internal combustion engine producers, plans to introduce a line of EVs in 2022 with batteries that charge in 15 minutes
- Ford is introducing F-150 hybrids and Mustang hybrids in 2020
- GM announced plans for 20 new EVs by 2023 (2 within the next 18 months)
- Volvo will convert its entire lineup to EVs and hybrids and stop making ICE vehicles.
How Will that Impact Racing?
I wrote about Bill Nye’s suggestion that NASCAR should go electric in 2016. While I’m as worried as anyone about climate change and air pollution, I found his proposal misguided. Nye didn’t understand the sport’s history, the fans’ culture nor did he understand that it would be far from “simple” (his word) for NASCAR to convert to EVs. He argued that NASCAR could do a lot to shift societal attitudes toward EVs, but NASCAR has never been on the forefront of automotive technology.
Auto manufacturers got involved in motorsports because motorsports provided a testbed to showcase and prove their products. If your car survived the 24 hours of Le Mans, it ought to survive the streets of London or the French countryside. That’s the history of European motorsports.
NASCAR is different. NASCAR has contributed a great deal of safety knowledge, but has had little impact on street cars because the technology hasn’t kept up with street cars. There is a lot of talk every year about getting more manufacturers into the sport. If you look at their global bottom line, it doesn’t make sense for them to put money into creating an 8-cylinder pushrod engine with two valves per cylinder and throttle body fuel injection. NASCAR is advertising for manufacturers.
I know they’re already racing in Formula E and a number of other electric-car series. Heck, ALMS was racing them a decade ago. They’ve had to contort the rules to compensate for the primary weakness of electric racecars: the lack of a battery that can either run at high speed for a long time or could re-charge quickly. (Nye suggested pit stops in which the batteries could be changed, neglecting the fact that the batteries are really, really heavy.) In Formula E, pit stops consist of the driver changing cars.
But that problem is on the way to being solved. At some point, Chevy, Ford and Toyota are going to have really cool-looking, fast EVs and/or hybrids and they’re going to want to push them instead of ICE cars. That’s when it will make sense for NASCAR to consider EVs.
Can EVs Race in NASCAR?
Let’s assume they’ve solved the battery problem. What else has to change?
Here’s the primary problem with EVs at present: They’re ugly.
I am not going to pay. You would have to pay me to watch Priuses race. But this…
It’s a BMW all-electric sedan with a range of 373 miles, a top speed of 120 mph and 0 to 60 in a little less than four seconds. This all-electric Porsche will be available in 2019. Insiders suggest it should have up to 670 horsepower, a top speed of 155 mph and 0 to 60 in the mid 3-seconds.
There’s no reason an electric motor can’t go into a stock car. So if your objection is that you like the way the cars look now, don’t worry. We can still have Darlington throwback weekend, with chassis from the 60’s and motors from the 2020s.
Believe it or not, electric cars might address the biggest gripe NASCAR fans and drivers have right now: the inability to pass.
Instant Peak Torque Passing requires acceleration. Acceleration requires torque. EVs produce peak torque at zero rpm. This is why 0-60 mph times for EVs are stellar. And let’s face it, going 100 mph isn’t as much fun as accelerating to 100 mph in five seconds.
The torque an ICE produces ramps up slowly with the rpms, as shown below. It reaches a peak, then falls off. An electric car has maximum torque over a wide range of rpms. (It does fall off at higher rpms, but when you’re running at high speed, you’re not accelerating very much, so you don’t need the torque there.)
Reliability Electric cars don’t require complex transmissions and multiple gears. This allows for lower weight in the drivetrain and fewer parts to break during a race. Also, most electric cars use a single gear, eliminating the time-honored NASCAR problem of a broken gear shifter that requires the driver to use a pair of locking pliers to shift to get off pit road. (Note that shifting gears also takes time when you do it manually, so your acceleration off pit road, for example, will be faster.)
Control. The throttle control on an ICE is done using a physical throttle, which controls how much air gets in. But the throttle isn’t linear. If you go from foot off the gas to 10% depressed, you get a very different change than if you go from 90% to 100% throttle. An EV throttle is controlled by software. It’s another dimension of ‘the box’. How do you set it up so it works best for your driver?
Less Brakes Required. When you release throttle, instead of the motor driving the wheels, the wheels drive the motor (which re-charges the battery). This means you don’t have to use your physical brakes as hard. You can use smaller brakes, which means less weight, and because you use them less, less chance of brake failure. batteries are heavy: that’s an issue; however, The batteries are made of many cells, which mean you can package the batteries in a lot of different ways. You could use the battery to keep the CG low, use cooling under car to keep batteries cool.
Batteries This is a mixed bag. EV batteries are heavy. The Tesla Model S has 1,200 lbs of batteries. This is a problem in sports car and open-wheel racing because the cars are so light. It’s not such a problem in NASCAR because the cars are so much heavier and you can also take advantage of the lighter drivetrains and brakes.
But there’s actually an advantage to the batteries being heavy. When you say ‘battery’, people think one big giant block, but the Tesla Model S, for example, is made up of 7,104 lithium-ion cells. That offers a lot of flexibility in terms of where the batteries are located. You could put them low in the car to keep the center of gravity low.
The other issue with batteries is that they (like an engine) need to be cooled. Putting the batteries on the bottom of the car offer the opportunity for air cooling, but overheating remains an issue (just as it is with ICE cars.)
All in all, there are some interesting opportunities to address some of the major issues stock car racing has with aerodynamics because you’re changing the engine/aero balance. EVs won’t have any problem going fast. It’ll just be a different kind of fast.
Here’s the big negative for many of us. We like feeling our bones rattle when the engines fire up. We associate noise with speed. I was just reading a story about how people perceive quieter vacuum cleaners to be less efficient than noisier models. Loud=Fast.
Sitting at the racetrack in relative quiet would be really odd. There’s always the possibility of putting something to simulate the noise on the cars, but that’s a little hokey. On the other hand, I remember sitting in the infield at Texas Motor Speedway when Michael McDowell crashed during single-car qualifying. You often don’t hear crashes much because of the engine noise. When the engine is off, the crashes become much louder.
This is where some real work needs to be done. NASCAR would have to educate teams and drivers about all-new kinds of hazards. The design of the chassis would have to be changed to protect the battery packs and the driver. Electrical hazards are the obvious safety hazard, but you have to consider everything from the electrical conductivity of different car parts to driver extraction to crash testing with a car having a different weight distribution.
NASCAR would have to develop totally new inspection procedures, but they’ve been dealing with increasing levels of technology in the last five years and they seem to be coming up with solutions that work. But the time EVs are viable, they’ll have it figured out.
So here’s a few things people say when talk turns to EVs or really, any type of technology in NASCAR.
Technology Has Ruined the Sport
I just heard someone on SiriusXM NASCAR radio say this: Get the engineers out of the sport. Note, please, that those same engineers have also saved countless drivers from serious injury and death. That innovation didn’t just come from NASCAR, it came from the experience and input of team engineers as well.
I get the argument. I drive a stick Mustang. I think it’s a shame that high schools don’t require everyone to take a shop class and an automotive class because everyone ought to know something about how things are made and how they’re fixed. But the reality is that the world has changed. Those of us who would rather spend an hour opening up a coffee pot to try to fix it rather than hop Amazon and buy a new one are regarded by most people as sweetly anachronistic (at best) or dinosaurs. If NASCAR is really about the cars we drive today, then they can’t turn their backs on today’s technology. NASCAR doesn’t have to pioneer technology, but they can’t afford to ignore it.
The Cars are Too Easy to Drive/Takes It Out of the Drivers’ Hands
One of the biggest complaints is that high-tech cars are ‘too easy to drive’. This can be true. If you’ve got every bit of information going back to a team of twenty engineers in front of a console that looks like NASA mission control and they tell the driver to change his wedge from 4.0 to 4.1, then yes, you’ve effectively removed the driver.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
NASCAR is really good at making rules. Electric cars don’t mean you must have real-time telemetry or in-car adjustments.
I’ve interviewed a number of drivers who have driven both ICE, hybrid and all-electric race cars and I guarantee you there is an art to driving an electric race car because the torque profile is so different. It’s a bigger change than switching from bias-ply to radial tires. Some drivers will adapt. Others will be mystified. You can go high-tech and still leave a lot in the hands of the driver.
Don’t Tell Me What to Do
A lot of NASCAR fans got really angry at Nye’s suggestion. Some of that was Nye coming in, knowing nothing of the sport, and telling people what to do. I wonder how the idea would go over if Dale Earnhardt Jr. got behind it. Then again, fans got up in arms when NASCAR suggested they might quiet the cars down.
We don’t like change and we especially don’t like change that is imposed on us. There’s carrots and there’s sticks to get people to do what you want them to do. Legislation and regulation are sticks. Americans don’t like being told what to do. Manufacturers coming out with sexy, affordable hybrid and electric vehicles that save us money and perform better than ICEs is the way to get people to change their minds.
Electric Vehicle stock car racing isn’t going to happen in the next five or ten years, but as the country (and the world) moves to electric and hybrid vehicles, NASCAR has to decide whether they want to remain an anachronistic series that operates in honor of the past or a series that moves into the future. NASCAR exists to make money: their decision (and it could be to pursue both tracks) will ultimately depend on what the fans want.
Also published on Medium.