China races toward cleaner transport

Updated: 2015-10-23 08:10

By Wang Mingjie(China Daily Europe)

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The electric version of Formula One racing is about to start its second season in Beijing

Formula E motor sport kicks off its 2015-16 season on Oct 24 with a race through the streets of Beijing, with electric cars that look like their Formula One cousins carrying the banner for clean energy and sustainability.

Last year's champion was Nelson Piquet Jr, son of three-time Formula One champion Nelson Piquet, driving for the Chinese-owned NextEV TCR Formula E Team.

 China races toward cleaner transport

The Formula E inaugural race took place in Beijing last year. Photos provided to China Daily

China races toward cleaner transport

The first single-seat e-car racing series is backed by the International Automobile Federation, known as FIA for its French acronym, the governing body for Formula One and other motor sports events.

"As a platform to promote electric vehicles, Formula E is an excellent concept, as it introduces the general public to this exciting technology, which will become increasingly mainstream as oil supplies dwindle and emissions targets become increasingly stringent," says Billy Wu, a lecturer at the School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London.

"Assuming it is as successful as Formula One, we can expect many new technical innovations to arise from the excellent engineering work of the various teams as they push the boundaries of the technology."

Dan Brett, a professor of chemical engineering at University College London, adds: "The high-tech nature of competitive auto racing means that technologies can be developed at an accelerated pace within an exciting framework that engages with the public and demonstrates the advantages of electromobility."

Last year's inaugural season, with 10 races that included such locations as Beijing, Buenos Aires, Berlin and London, received a fantastic response, says Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E. "All the races were packed and there were almost 200 million spectators worldwide."

This year's season is scheduled for 10 locations again, including Berlin, Paris and Moscow, ending in a double-header in London in July, according to the official FIA Formula E website.

Agag says the vehicles' lower pollution and costs boosted the popularity of Formula E.

"Global warming and pollution are the biggest challenges, for which car emissions are one of the biggest sources. I think clean mobility is essential to stop pollution and global warming."

China added 17 million new cars last year, reaching a record 154 million nationwide, according to the Ministry of Public Security. In Beijing, as in other cities, vehicles are the biggest source of pollution, contributing almost one-fourth of the city's total pollution from the dangerous PM2.5.

Effectively tackling pollution while maintaining sustainable economic growth is of great significance to China. Developing clean energy such as electric-powered cars is a natural way forward.

NextEV, a Chinese e-car startup, was created last year as a rival to US electric car company Tesla. It is backed by giant Chinese Internet services company Tencent Holdings Ltd and Hillhouse Capital, a Chinese investment management company.

Last month, Shanghai-based NextEV reportedly raised $500 million from investors including well-known Silicon Valley venture capital company Sequoia Capital.

The creation and growth of NextEV has been supported by the Chinese government, which recently modified regulations to encourage investment by nonautomotive companies, and has also provided generous incentives to encourage production and sales of electric vehicles.

"Incentives are important. Definitely the industry needs help at the beginning, and undoubtedly EV has benefited from the incentives, but I think the next step is regulations and legislation to allow a special area in the city that is open only to EVs, when alternatives to (internal) combustion cars are available," Agag says.

The Chinese government is working hard to fight pollution, he says, and it is important for the industry in China to make the gradual shift to electric cars. If they do, they would lead the rest of the world, he adds.

Electric vehicles produce no pollution at the point of use and can potentially be charged using "green" electricity generated from renewables such as wind and solar.

"By using on-board electrical storage, such as batteries, it is possible to capture the energy in braking that is wasted in conventional vehicles, increasing overall efficiency," Brett says. "Electric cars are also quieter than internal combustion vehicles and have very high torque from the electric motors, which gives impressive acceleration performance."

But there are also challenges, including the electric cars' limited range and the need for better recharging infrastructure.

"When using batteries, the range is much less that can be obtained with conventional vehicles, and the limited recharging infrastructure also contributes to so-called range anxiety. Electric vehicles are also more expensive than conventional cars, but with economies of scale there is no reason why they cannot reach cost parity in the future," Brett says.

Wu adds: "To a certain extent, costs will come down with increased uptake just as they did for batteries in consumer electronics. However, this requires a change in the mainstream perception of the technology."

Despite the challenges, research and development in electric vehicles has progressed significantly in the past few years with the discovery of new materials, optimization of existing technologies to increase energy density, and resolution of engineering challenges such as how to integrate these technologies into real world conditions, Wu says.

More use of electric-vehicle battery technology is inevitable within the next few years, Wu says. "The introduction of the Toyota Prius, which was a hybrid vehicle combining batteries with an internal combustion engine to increase efficiency, was the first significant step toward this to help with the economies of scale to make this technology affordable.

"Soon after, we saw the release of the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Roadster, which were fully electric vehicles consumers could purchase, and now an increasing number of automotive manufacturers are making either fully electric or hybrid vehicles. I can only see this trend increasing for years to come, especially as emissions targets, climate change and air quality become increasingly important."

(China Daily European Weekly 10/23/2015 page29)