What do the rear-view mirror, all-wheel drive, and traction control all have in common? All were born in the amphitheatre of motorsport.
In a sporting arena where the difference between success and failure is measured in mere tenths of seconds, the technology that powers these remarkable vehicles is ripe for innovative, cutting edge thinking and solutions. It’s why so many of the world’s biggest automakers are eager to embark on highly expensive motorsport itineraries year-on-year. In many cases, what will become eventually commonplace in passenger vehicles first finds its feet on the track. There is one series, however, that has enjoyed a particularly quick development cycle over the last five years: Formula E.
As the premier electric racing category of the motorsport governing body, FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), Formula E has been able to attract more works manufacturers than almost any other racing series in the world. Now in its sixth season, there are 12 competing teams, with 14 races scheduled in 12 cities around the world including Hong Kong, Mexico City, Paris, New York, London, Santiago, Seoul, Rome and Berlin. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Audi, Mahindra, Jaguar and PSA Group’s DS brand are all present on the grid, with all eight bringing their own bespoke powertrains to each race. Formula One, in comparison, has just Mercedes-Benz, Ferrari and Renault that build both their own cars and their own engines.
The lure of being the first to test electric competencies—and potentially define future on-road electric vehicles (EVs)—is clear and is one that few manufacturers and suppliers in this space are willing to let go to waste.
The ultimate testing ground
As well as pushing battery capacity and range, Formula E has allowed software in the vehicle to accelerate too. This is where players such as Green Hills Software (GHS) benefit.
“Your average driver is not going to push these technologies as hard as a race car driver would,” explained Chuck Brokish, Director of Automotive Business Development at GHS. “In race conditions, there are plenty of cases where we’re going to ask for more energy in a shorter amount of time than in a passenger car. We also experience many different extreme conditions within a race…Those extreme racing conditions help to push the envelope of operating conditions so that we can recognise what is necessary within consumer driving space and be far better prepared for that.”
On the track, GHS is working with Mahindra Racing, which boasts four Formula E wins and 18 podium placings, and is one of the few remaining teams to have competed in every season since the inception of the series in 2014. The two companies announced their collaboration in July 2019, intended to develop what it describes as “strategically important in-vehicle electronics systems focused on advanced safety and high reliability”. Mahindra’s current Formula E car was featured on the GHS booth at CES 2020, equipped with GHS’s INTEGRITY real-time operating system and optimised development tools for its Race to Road initiative.
The collaboration sees GHS help the only Indian Formula E team in a number of areas, with Mahindra using GHS’s compilers for improved efficiency and performance, as well as its debuggers to ensure code running in the vehicle’s systems is optimised effectively. However, one of the most critical areas for GHS’s expertise and systems is battery management.
This management entails not just monitoring battery status to ensure it is working with expected thresholds, but also making sure that every last drop of battery capacity is used in the race. “You do not want to take it so easy that you finish the race with 10% of your battery left. That’s energy you could have been using to win,” added Brokish. The challenge here is maximising battery potential safely and in real-time. “In fact,” he said, “it’s about more than just battery management. It’s about energy management.
“It is vital to make sure that you’re not creating any safety concerns, such as by drawing too much current,” continued Brokish. “However, you also have to make sure that you’re using power optimally so that you optimise the life of the battery cell itself and you can get as much performance as possible out of the battery between charges.”
Much of this optimisation can be done pre-race. Using pre-existing data on the circuit layouts, track conditions, and the driver’s characteristics, it is possible to pre-plan energy usage to attempt to ensure the vehicle is used to its maximum. However, the unpredictable nature of motorsport also requires competitors to have a versatile plan.
“The entire race strategy itself—trying to optimise how much energy you have left and calculating how far there is to go—changes during the race,” said Brokish. “For example, if there’s an accident that brings out a yellow flag or a safety car you have to, in real-time, rework your overall strategy.”
It is this ability to adapt to conditions under pressure that could become particularly relevant to road vehicles. While the average commuter is not looking to completely drain their vehicle’s batteries on the way from point A to B as a racing driver would, the ability to adapt vehicle settings to changing road and weather conditions could help extend battery lifespan significantly.
“That is an area that is really going to lend itself well to the electrification of cars,” said Brokish. “We’ve already seen examples of where EV batteries have caught fire. If we do not manage those batteries and the current flow effectively, we are putting ourselves and others around us at a safety risk. If we can do that optimally, we can get much more range out of a battery.”