Four Years Later, Formula E May Be Starting To Win Over Car Buyers

Formula E launched four years ago as a coterie of electric cars tearing through temporary courses set up in cities including Beijing, Berlin, and Brooklyn. Next year, the cars will go even faster, and the batteries will be powerful enough that drivers won’t need to swap vehicles midway.

As the world’s first fully-electric racing series, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship aims to showcase the city-friendly nature of electric cars. By repurposing urban landscapes from Miami to Monte Carlo to Moscow as a proving ground for EV technology, the industry is hoping to target a new audience and drum up interest in EVs.

“Four years ago when this championship started, the technology wasn’t there,” said James Barclay, director for the Panasonic Jaguar Racing team. “Now we have a battery that’s bigger in size and has more capacity. It’s a great way to showcase real-world use.”

The race cars have steadily increased in capability over the years, but they’ll take a significant leap next year: they’ll be able to reach 174 mph - up from 140 mph this year - and complete the entire circuit with a single battery.

“The need to switch cars during a race illustrates the ongoing challenge of electric vehicles — range and charge time,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Kelley Blue Book. “Hopefully the series will speed the solution of these issues, because until they are solved EVs will remain a niche vehicle segment.”

In addition to drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators and even more television viewers, the series serves as a laboratory for manufacturers to test new technology that they can put in the cars they sell to consumers. As with the seatbelt, rearview mirror and other automotive technology adapted for road cars after debuting on a racetrack, Formula E serves as a test bed for automakers to fine-tune their green tech before rolling it out to shoppers.

Other automakers are taking notice. Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Nissan are gearing up to race alongside Jaguar, Audi and Renault in future series.

But will shoppers be ready? As Formula E enters its fifth year, EVs still comprise only about .7% of new vehicle registrations in the U.S., according to IHS Markit data. An AlixPartners survey anticipates the arrival of 207 new models by 2022, possibly leading to a pileup at dealerships as consumers continue to opt for gasoline engines.

“Things like having to change cars mid-race is not a great look for EVs with the already overblown range anxiety concerns, but that’s something that the next-gen car is going to fix with a more energy dense battery pack,” said Fred Lambert, editor of Electrek. “I think Formula E has made great strides with the motorsport crowd, but it still has a way to go before affecting EV adoption positively.”