Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Formula E season two hopes

The dust has truly settled now on an enthralling and very entertaining inaugural season of the all-electric single make Formula E racing series. It has succeeded in places where Formula 1 and other events have failed, being very accessible to fans, great racing and great personalities to boot. But what does season two have in store?

The SPARK FE01 cars will remain mostly the same with the exception of the e-motor, the inverter, the gearbox and the cooling system. Also minor reason suspension changes will be allowed to cope with changes to the mentioned parts. And this is my first area of concern for Formula E. Most of the teams have partnered with either a car manufacturer or similar to work on these developments which should lead to some improvements in performance.

But the beauty of Formula E so far has been the identical machinery racing round these tight, challenging city centre circuits, only separated by the team's understanding of best power management and the driver's skill of both being a quick racer but also to put that power management understanding into use on the track. Champion Nelson Piquet Jr was undoubtedly one of the best on the grid at this, being pretty handy in a single seater, he was also able to eek out that extra lap in the first stint before changing cars to being to push harder in the second half of the race.

It is my fear that some of this will be negated and the balance of power will shift towards whichever team has extracted the most additional performance from their technological advancements. Because of this will season two see 7 different winners from the 11 races as season one did? By comparison there has only been 6 different winners in F1 since the start of the 2013 season until now (that's 47 races!).

While I'm not too bothered by Mercedes current dominance of F1, it is of course no different to Williams in the early 90s or McLaren in parts of the 80s; I am however concerned that the close racing that has established Formula E as a motorsport series that more casual fans have come to enjoy will stop and potentially could turn off existing and potential new fans. If the era of Ferrari / Schumacher dominance turned off hardcore F1 fans then what will the FE crowd think to a car being dominant?

One thing that isn't changing but I wish it would is the Fan Boost system, where fans vote for whoever they want to receive a power boost. Output can be temporarily increased to 180kw / 243bhp (from 150kw / 202.5bhp) for 5 secs per car (so that's twice per race). While it has occasionally been used by drivers to make a pass or defend it has more commonly been executed to try to gain extra points by setting the fastest lap. I like the idea of trying to get the fans more involved with the sport, but popularity performance increases have no place in sport, let alone motorsport.

And lastly I hope the FIA are reading this for my final point because so many driver's races have been ruined by the minimum pit lane time requirement. e-dams got it very wrong in Moscow believing the minimum time to be longer than it was, and many other drivers have been too quick through the whole car change process and been penalised with a drive-thru which destroys their race. I agree with the basis of the rule which is to prevent teams from taking risks with safety in the pursuit of quick car changes but why not adopt the WEC method of this which is a minimum car stationary time? The cars can't go quick in the pit lane due to the speed limit and this way so long as they don't set off too quickly there will be no risk of penalty and everyone gets belted up in a safe manner.

Being frank, for a new series which required very few rule tweaks during its first season (changing the warm up lap to a short crawl up the grid a few places was sensible for better use of the energy available) it has done very well to become a popular, entertaining and often exciting race series. When I visited the Saturday race at Battersea Park in London I remarked to my brother that the majority of the fans present were non-typical motorsport goers which showed its variety of appeal. I hope that season two of Formula E doesn't realise my fears and continues to build on the excellent work by the FIA, the teams, drivers and organisers as a whole.

See you on 17th October 2015 for round 1 in Beijing!

Saturday, 11 July 2015

A motoring revolution is coming and not just the motoring world will change

This week saw the arrival of the Google Car in Austin, Texas. This is the next stage in Google's attempt to evaluate how well the car performs outside of California where it has so far performed very well it seems, covering over 1 million autonomous miles. The odd looking vehicle is still someway off production and retail sales but what does it mean for the world when it does start to hit the public highway for real?

As I pondered that question more and more I realised that the impact will be far greater than I originally imagined. And it created even more questions than I expected too. Firstly I began to think about how it would help inebriated patrons get home without the need for an expensive taxi ride. And the fact that you will probably tell your car when you are ready to be picked up via a smartphone app. Your electric powered car may not necessarily be parked close by, but still happily recharging itself via inductive charging bays (bye bye petrol stations?) which don't need to be in center city locations. It doesn't need to be walking distance to anywhere as your car will drop you off at your destination and go find somewhere to park by itself, awaiting your command to return. End of the taxi driver?

Which could mean that the current situation of large outer-city retail parks starting to become less of a trend, with one of the main reasons for these cropping up everywhere is the large area of cheap land for free car parks previously required. A revival of inner-city shopping?

And what about deliveries? A self driving delivery truck can drive all day and all night to shops and customers alike; no need for a break, no complaining about working early or late or weekends. Imagine being able to specify a delivery time to within 20 minutes or so, on a Sunday evening for any product you like. Amazon have recently launched Prime customers 1 hour delivery for London residents - that is the future for the developed world but with the improvement of being 24/7 thanks to automated vehicles. Late night curry?

Parents may find themselves with more time on their hands, why not let the car do the school run or take the kids to their friend's house? Taking someone to or picking them up at the airport at stupid o'clock? And why not reclaim that commuter time that you spend driving to do something more productive? And the benefits to disabled travellers is obvious to see.

Enough about how things will change for drivers and passengers, what about pedestrians? It seems that the evidence so far shows that being a pedestrian or cyclist will be safer than ever. It is expected that autonomous vehicles will evaluate and react to situations much better than human drivers. And when a significant amount of these vehicles are on the roads the thought is that they will be able to communicate with each other. This means efficiencies in driving closer together in a safe way at potentially higher speeds; fewer traffic jams with more vehicles being able to make more use of the existing amount of road.

So who is at risk during this revolution? Potentially the list may include and not limited to taxi drivers, bus drivers, delivery drivers and driving instructors - would anyone want to bother with lessons and a driving test when you can be chauffeured around? Other factors to consider, who is liable for any possible damage or harm caused by the vehicle? The passenger? The owner? The manufacturer? What kind of insurance would you need?

Another huge aspect to consider is would the ethos of car ownership change? Why bother owning a car when you can have one arrive on your doorstep within minutes which will take you anywhere for the price per mile travelled rather than thousands of pounds of depreciating metal that sits on your driveway for ~90% of the time?

So many questions and it could be many years before any of this is prevalent enough to get some answers but one thing is for sure when it does arrive, it will bring some massive changes to society.