The electric racing car event, Formula E, just completed its third season in July and Chinese team Techeetah secured its first E-Prix victory, a significant achievement for the team. In the wake of the final, the German luxury manufacturer Mercedes-Benz and sports car manufacturer Porsche the two announced their commitment to join the series in season six, signaling a seismic shift within the automotive industry towards electric. The teams are now preparing for the fourth season of the FIA Formula E World Championship which will start in Hong Kong. Races are held along the scenic Central Harborfront starting Dec. 2.
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Of the ten participating international teams, two belong to Chinese. A third, Faraday Future, a California-based automotive startup that surfaced in 2015, is heavily funded by Chinese consumer electronics conglomerate LeEco. The company known as “Netflix of China” is currently experiencing financial turmoil, but that hasn’t put a stop to Faraday’s racing ambitions.
The three teams have very different approaches to motorsport. Techeetah is owned by SECA, a Shanghai-based sports and entertainment company. SECA owns football clubs and streaming rights to sporting events, but they are not as technically involved. “They’re interested in growing the series, they’re interested in developing a new sport,” says team principal Mark Preston who has 15 years of F1 experience with McLaren and Arrows. While Techeetah’s powertrain is built by French automaker Renault in Paris, Preston believes having a Chinese brand in the series helps further promote electric vehicles (EVs) to consumers. “If China becomes the leader in electric vehicles, it will drive down the costs of batteries and the technology needed to make electric vehicles more widespread around the world.”
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China is already leading the way. In May alone, there were 40,000 new electric vehicle registrations, which represents a 49% increase compared to the same month last year. The number of electric cars sold in 2016 was more than double that of the United States during the same period, with manufacturers like BYD, BAIC and Warren Buffett-backed Zhejiang Geely leading the way. Geely bought Swedish automaker Volvo all in cash from Ford for $1.3 billion in 2010, the largest overseas acquisition by a Chinese automaker. Volvo recently announced that all new models will include an electric motor from 2019. The move makes the European car giant the first major car brand to end production of pure combustion engines as we know them.
Chinese companies are putting their weight behind battery power on all fronts. Private equity group China Media Capital, the parent company of SECA, has officially become a shareholder in FIA Formula E. “There will be races on the continent in the near future…it’s definitely coming,” said Preston.
The other Chinese contender in the electric race is NextEV, better known as NIO, a road car brand with an unusual history. He first appeared on the scene when he launched his super car, the EP9. With 1,360 horsepower, the vehicle quickly broke five records for the fastest car in the world. The team has evolved since the first season when it was named Team China Racing.
Prior to 2016, the NIO brand produced no vehicles, but has since manufactured ten EP9s at its Nanjing plant, with six more expected to be delivered. “We have no history in terms of ICE [internal combustion engine], hybrids. We are manufacturers of purely electric vehicles,” explains Gerry Hughes, NextEV team manager. The startup unveiled its first 7-seater SUV at the 2017 Shanghai Auto Show. The car will be officially launched in the fourth quarter. “We are on the verge of becoming a mass producer of electric vehicles. Tentatively in China and worldwide. But certainly, starting with China. For NextEV, the ES9 is meant to bridge the gap between race cars and road cars, because ultimately NIO aims to be a mass-market friendly company. “The EP9 is a very specific vehicle that was a brand awareness tool for the NIO brand,” Hughes said.
Like any other forward-looking automaker, NIO has also ventured into self-driving technology with the EP9 as well as its concept car, Eve. “Autonomous technology is an integral part of NIO’s DNA.” The company counts internet giant Tencent, search engine Baidu and PC maker Lenovo among its many deep-pocketed investors. And with the Chinese government on its side encouraging alternative and sustainable energy solutions, NIO could be poised to take on Tesla with its first consumer car due to go into production in 2018.
Formula E allows automakers like NIO to showcase their electric technology on a global scale. However, at the moment the batteries do not have enough energy density to last a full race distance. Thus, each team will always have two vehicles with a pit stop between laps as in past years. Hughes points out that a few automakers have turned away from the series for this very reason. He describes it as “range anxiety”. “BMW has openly stated that it does not want to be involved in the championship as long as it can only have one car racing.
Alas, the E-Prix will return to Hong Kong with a double-header for a second year on the street circuit as the electric vehicle revolution continues to move forward.