Electric Race Cars Shifting Into Gear

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Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly finding their way into the world’s most prestigious and competitive race tracks. While advances in technology have yet to allow fully electric vehicles to successfully compete alongside gas-powered ones, EVs are making strides toward outpacing their traditional counterparts.

The best evidence of this may be the Nissan ZEOD RC, which will be entered in the 2014 Le Mans Garage 56, a racing competition that showcases innovative, experimental vehicles.

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“Nissan has already been out with a fully electric road-going vehicle, the Leaf, and now we’re taking it to the next level by doing a full lap at Le Mans,” said Rick Kulach, spokesperson for Nissan U.S. Motorsports. “A lap at Le Mans is eight and half miles, so we decided there has to be a way to make it work.”

While Nissan avoids the dreaded h-word, hybrid, the ZEOD RC operates on both battery and fuel power. “The ZEOD features regenerative battery charging,” said Kulach. “The vehicle is lightweight and efficient, so that a number of laps can be run in fuel mode, and then the final lap range will be extended under pure electric power.”

If it all sounds highly experimental, competitive racetracks have historically been breeding grounds for new automotive technology and some of the vehicles that compete are technically still in development. The major holdup in EV racing now is simply the limitation imposed by battery technology. In a road race competition, such as drag racing, a battery collects energy on turns and when braking. That energy advantage does not exist on an oval-shaped track, the type of track used by many speedways, such as NASCAR, according to EV pioneer John E. Waters.

“When you move to an oval course, when you have speeds up to 250 miles per hour, it takes a tremendous amount of force and rapid drain on the minimal energy storage of batteries as they exist today,” said Waters, who helped develop a battery pack system for General Motors electric car, the EV1 in the 1990s, and later founded Bright Automotive, inventors of the 100-miles-per-gallon, plug-in hybrid electric commercial vehicle.

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“Absent a better battery life, another potential way of racing EVs would be to alter the track itself,” said Waters. “A track that would be similar to a slot car track would work to actually charge the battery as you’re going around the track.”

Until that happens, researchers are hard at work figuring out ways to use the current battery technology to its fullest potential. While that happens, a number of manufacturers are putting the best of their current EV technology front and center in world competitions. Toyota entered is hybrid model TS030 in the 2012 Le Mans competition, but a road accident followed by engine failure caused it to withdraw. This year, the same model was re-entered, but overshadowed by Audi’s R18 e-tron Quattro, also a hybrid car. The Audi model won the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hour race.

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