Fast physics Formula E has created huge advances in electric vehicles off the racing circuit as well as on, but they still have drawbacks. (Courtesy: Luis Licona/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Topics: Alternate Energy, Battery, Biofuels, Climate Change, Global Warming
Cars – and in particular racecars – might seem the villains in a world grappling with climate change. Racing Green: How Motorsport Science Can Change the World hopes to convince you of exactly the opposite, with science journalist Kit Chapman showing how motorsports not only pioneers new, planet-friendlier machines and materials, but saves lives on and off the track too.
The first part of Chapman’s argument tracks the historical development of cars and competition. His stories show how, from its start, racing has served as a research lab and proving ground for new technologies. The first organized motor races were competitions to encourage innovation, akin to today’s X-Prizes. In 1894 Le Petit Journal offered a purse for the first car to make it from Paris to Rouen, while later races emphasized pure speed or, like the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, endurance. Chapman provides a whirlwind tour through the development of the internal combustion engine-powered car and its damning limitations, including the copious greenhouse-gas emissions and the inability to ever achieve more than 50% thermal efficiency.
He then introduces us to new racing series like Formula E and Extreme E, which have changed electric cars “from an eccentric folly to the undisputed future of the automotive industry”. Chapman highlights the advantages of electric vehicles without glossing over their drawbacks: recycling challenges, the potential for difficult-to-extinguish fires resulting from thermal runaway, and ethical/sustainability issues surrounding the materials used. Throughout this section, he links motorsport advances with “real-life” applications. For example, the same flywheels that enabled Audi’s hybrid racecars to take all three podium spots at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012 made London buses more energy efficient. Some connections are a little more tenuous than others, but they are uniformly fascinating.