Brazilian Formula E driver Nelson Piquet of Team Nextev TCR zooms ahead in Berlin earlier this year. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke
Brazilian Formula E driver Nelson Piquet of Team Nextev TCR zooms ahead in Berlin earlier this year. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Sunday will be prime time for motor racing in East Asia when Formula 1 cars hurl around the track at the Japanese Grand Prix. The engine growl will be heard by residents in downtown Suzuka, five kilometers away, as well as by TV viewers around the world.

The thrill of a Formula 1 trackside seat has always been partly in the deep-throated, earsplitting roar of engines that now surpass 1,000 horsepower — a racket that transports die-hard petrol-heads into an ecstasy bordering on the carnal. And it’s going to get louder. Next year new F1 rules will boost exhaust noise output. Not that anyone in the nondescript factory town near Nagoya will be complaining: the din is the only thing from Suzuka heard around the world.

The added treat this weekend is that while the F1 howls in Japan, so-called Formula Electric racing cars will be spinning around the streets of Hong Kong, between Central Pier and Admiralty district. They will generate a different kind of noise. While Formula E vehicles offer some stunning acceleration off the grid, Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels residents are unlikely to have Martini time disturbed by throbbing engines.

Strong, silent

The Hong Kong race is part of the third season of Formula E, the showcase for emerging technologies in electric vehicles. One characteristic of electric vehicles is they lack the engine noise generated by their petrol-dependent cousins. So much so that sound needs to be added to electric cars now running on the streets so that pedestrians can hear them and get out of the way. That silence creates a problem of a different kind for racing promoters, given how critical engine roar is to the sex appeal of motor sports.

So, developers of electric race cars have been adding some sound to their vehicles to make them, well, distinctive. Promoters have compared the results to spaceships; the less kind say over-amped vacuum cleaners. You can judge for yourself here:

YouTube video

Still, the ‘work in progress’ feel to Formula E is part of its charm. This year, drivers will need to switch cars halfway through the 50-minute race to have enough battery range. That will end in 2018 when the e-racers are fitted with more powerful batteries.

Whatever they might lack in range and noise against F1 vehicles, FE cars make up with rocket-like acceleration: 0-100 kilometers an hour in under three seconds.

And the Swiss are working on a model that hits 100 km/h in 1.75 seconds and just 30 meters. In fact, superior acceleration is the hallmark of electric traction, a thrill that comes even with a Nissan Leaf. Whatever F1 glamour Formula E may lack now, it’s a field worth watching given how motor sport innovations have historically trickled down to the family car. And with everything “E”, what to watch for is progress in batteries.

Battery research is the ‘space race’ of our time, lavishly funded and intensely competitive, with all eyes fixed on a huge prize: dominance not only in electric vehicles, but smartphones, renewable energy and other key industries. Is it “Mission Impossible?” No. As Nissan researchers told me three years ago, they saw no need for a Moore’s Law quantum leap in performance, just doubling the power-to-weight ratio and halving the cost. And costs are falling.

The key measure is cost per kilowatt-hour for a battery with enough juice to power a car for 500 kilometers (the range consumers expect) or equivalent to 80-100 kilowatt-hours. In 2010, the cost of 1 kilowatt-hour of battery power was roughly US$1,000. So a 100 kilowatt-hour battery cost the manufacturer $10,000. Oh, and it was too big to fit in a car.

By 2015, the cost of more compact batteries had dropped to US$350 kilowatt-hour, which brought our price down to US$3,500. That’s why we’re starting to see EVs appear with half-decent range at about US$30,000. The tipping point is expected to come at US$150 per kilowatt-hour, producing a 500-kilometer electric vehicle battery that costs just US$1,500.

Apart from the battery, electric vehicles are durable as well as cheap and simple to produce. Electric motors have few moving parts and are now so compact they can even fit inside the wheels.

What’s more, they eliminate the need for a long list of other components, including engine block, transmission, exhaust system, gas tank and radiator. With no more oil needed for lubrication, and no more rubber belts, spark plugs or timing chains, say goodbye to quick-lube and muffler-repair shops. Plus, if your home has solar panels you will be able to generate your own motor fuel. Sayonara, Saudi Arabia!

Tipping point

Some industry estimates say the US$150 per kilowatt-hour tipping point will be reached in the next decade. Then, expect conventional cars to disappear at breathtaking speed. In a real sense, though, Asia is already well into the electric vehicle age. In fact, a prime example runs closely parallel to the Formula E course — unseen, unheard and underground.

When Hong Kong’s cross-harbor MTR subway tunnel opened in 1980, effectively fusing two cities into one, it was part of an Asia-wide subway building boom that continues today.

The same year, Seoul opened its second subway line. Seven years later, Singapore opened its first MRT subway. And in the 36 years since, electric urban rail has come to cities from Delhi to Chengdu to Sendai. Starting almost from scratch, China has built subways in 26 cities, including the world’s two largest networks in Shanghai and Beijing.

With this massive effort, Asia has left Europe and the U.S. in the dust. For proof, ride the gleaming Delhi Metro to the airport then fly to New York and board the decrepit Lexington IRT. Then decide which city is investing in the future.

Despite the electric progress underground, shifting to battery power on the streets above remains an urgent priority for Asian megacities like Beijing and Delhi, choked by auto exhaust and the ceaseless racket of internal-combustion engines. The shift can’t come a moment too soon — but come it surely will.

So if sipping a Martini on your Mid-Levels balcony this Sunday while watching the race below, gaze out at the haze across the harbor and listen to the dull rumble of traffic in the distance. Within a decade both may be gone forever. For the petrol-heads hooked to the primeval roar of F1 racing: Enjoy it while you still can.

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