This article was first published in ProActive, the official industry newsletter of Lotus Engineering. It is used here with permission.
During the 20th century, racing provided a valuable proving ground for automotive technology which led to significant developments in engine, chassis and tyre technologies, as well as in aerodynamics, structures and control systems.
Many manufacturers applied this development directly to road vehicles and some, such as Lotus, Ferrari and Porsche, used the opportunities provided by innovation to rapidly improve the passenger car.
However, true innovation has subsequently been dialled out of competition by the organisers’ need to assuage the increasing spend by manufacturers on racing. Indeed, the worst thing for any non-innovative but high-spending team is to be completely wrong-footed by a cleverer team with a fraction of the budget but a better grasp of the opportunities provided by the regulations.
This has given rise to restrictive regulations (which ironically force up budgets since incremental improvements on a well-optimised and tightly controlled formula are inevitably hard-won) and the use in racing of stagnant and irrelevant technology.
While the 20th century approach was then relevant, it is not now, for while motor sport definitely improved the motor car up to about 1990, road vehicles are now more advanced than their racing counterparts in most important areas (emissions, fuel economy, safety and control systems, etc).
More Pressing Issues
Instead of more powerful engines or better ride and handling for road automobiles, in the 21st century mankind has more pressing issues. Two of these are linked by carbon, or more specifically, carbon atoms currently bound in the geosphere.
The need to collect them from their geographical position gives rise to an energy security issue, and their conversion into carbon dioxide and subsequent release into the atmosphere gives rise to a global warming issue.
At some point in the future, both issues will need addressing.
Nature has seen fit to store what was originally solar energy in bond energies in hydrocarbon molecules. The hydrogen-carbon bond is one of the most efficient ways of storing energy, and many of the resulting molecules are either liquid or solid, making for easy storage and handling. Introducing other elements such as oxygen extends the possibilities, and the resulting carbohydrates not only make excellent fuels (in the form of the alcohols) but also foodstuffs. Whereas combustion engines turn the bond energy into heat through oxidation, biology releases the bond energy through the metabolic process via processes not unlike those adopted in fuel cells. (It’s interesting to note that chocolate has approximately the same gravimetric energy content as methanol!)
The process which formed the hydrocarbons took millions of years. In comparison, through burning we are releasing the bound carbon atoms in the blink of an eye. Estimates vary for the point at which we will run out, but in the case of oil (currently the chief source of transport energy), even if we double what we believe we currently have, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States estimates that ‘peak oil’ – the point at which demand starts to outstrip supply – will occur between 2016 and 2028. There will then be some tough times ahead for society on a political and economic level – and in all likelihood, very soon.
In order to address the two linked global issues of energy security and global warming, mankind needs to:
(a) improve energy efficiency wherever possible
(b) ultimately stop releasing geospheric carbon atoms into the atmosphere as new carbon dioxide molecules
While stationary consumers of electricity can be improved by various means – including increased use of nuclear or renewable energy or so-called ‘clean coal’ approaches using carbon (dioxide) capture and storage – transportation represents a serious and unique challenge. This is because autonomous vehicles need to carry their energy store with them. Unfortunately, storing large amounts of energy in a battery is extremely expensive and storing it as hydrogen is thermodynamically challenging. If one uses fossil fuels, attempting to store any CO2 produced aboard a vehicle is also unlikely to be practical.
These are major problems which face automotive engineering and which at some point will have to be solved.
Against this, the 20th century template that motor sport is currently running to is entirely irrelevant.
However, we believe that motor sport can play a major role in investigating some of the potential means of achieving these aims, but that racing regulations (particularly those for the powertrain) are not currently framed in a manner to encourage this. Furthermore, regulations to help achieve this can be much simpler than those currently existing, and would undoubtedly give rise to greater variation in design solutions than is presently the case. We need to adopt a 21st century template.
In such a template, the key would be to limit the amount of energy permitted for a race distance. With such an approach, much of the complexity in regulations could be removed. There is no need for restrictions on fuel, engine and cycle types, swept volume (if applicable), means of aspiration, etc, because efficient energy conversion would be the goal: simply, the more efficient the energy conversion, the faster the race can be run.
This approach is an analogous to most people’s daily driving, only for them the aim is to complete a journey as efficiently as possible in order to spend the minimum on fuel.
Both scenarios mean that, for the same fuel type, the necessary CO2 emission will be most efficiently deployed. Furthermore, this approach also reflects the way the real car market operates – manufacturers are not forced to adopt a fixed engine type, or capacity, or fuel, because providing they comply with certain limits on emissions, they can offer many different solutions to the customer.
Kinetic Energy Recovery
Allowing unlimited hybridisation in racing would encourage race teams to develop efficient, lightweight solutions to the problem of maximising reuse of kinetic energy. The FIA should be applauded for its adoption of limited kinetic energy recovery systems on F1, but the regulations are nowhere near free enough.
For the real world, kinetic energy reuse offers the possibility to minimise fuel consumption more than any other approach: unless cruising, a vehicle is primarily accelerating and decelerating, and even at a cruise an efficient means of harnessing transient energy would allow engines to be optimised to a greater degree. Being predominantly low speed, at present the various legislated fuel economy and emissions drive cycles around the world do not put a premium on kinetic energy recovery; the far more severe arena of racing would be just the forcing–house for kinetic energy recovery system development.
Limiting the amount of energy available for a race and permitting hybridisation would be expected to yield solutions which could rapidly and beneficially transfer to road cars. This is absolutely not the case for racing technology at present.
Racing could also be used to drive the creation of better fuels. Every fuel has a different energy content, so using energy as the primary limitation – rather than tank size – would allow different fuels to directly compete. Based on the renewability or CO2 impact of the fuel, the energy allowance could then be altered to arrive at an ‘energy equivalence factor’ for a given fuel.
Manufacturers and teams could then chose the best solution for them based on what would be an overall well-to-wheels assessment, i.e. the same metric that society will have to apply to energy use as peak oil is passed and the global warming becomes ever more important.
The energy available and its overall efficiency of conversion would be the important criteria, both in the microcosm of racing and in the wider real world. Energy, and its CO2 impact, should be the common denominator so that the millions spent on race technology are not wasted finding solutions to problems which no longer exist for wider society....
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