Induction charging in Formula E: exciting but challenging

It’s a big week for Formula E. The official customer car is being launched tomorrow at the Frankfurt motor show. Today’s announcement that technology business Qualcomm has signed up to Formula E as a technical partner and sponsor is big news, if not a big surprise.

The company already has a very public involvement with Drayson, the outfit headed up by former UK science minister Lord Drayson that includes the first Formula E racing team, and the sport’s promoter has been hinting at wireless charging for months; Wired magazine covered this back in January. Qualcomm fits the frame perfectly then to supply such technology to the series.

And using the new sport to promote brands closely allied to electronics is a marketing move that needs no second thoughts. Qualcomm is likely to be just the first of many splashing the cash to share the spotlight. As a new venture, those marketing dollars really matter to Formula E, so the reported five  year deal is likely to help the bottom line at a time when spend will be high and returns a long way from realisation.

So it was only a matter of time. But the partnership won’t be smooth sailing. Induction charging, which allows for wireless battery recharging, is far from straightforward.

“Static induction charging is definitely possible and people are playing around with moving induction charging,” comments Cliff Rassweiler, an expert in developing electrical technology for racing applications at ProEv. Induction charging is being trialled notably in Germany and South Korea, where it is used to keep electrically-powered buses juiced up.

“Inductive charging is accomplished by using an electromagnetic field to induce a current in a receiver coil. The greater the distance, the more inefficient the charging,” says Rassweiler. “The biggest questions for Formula E would be the weight of the coil in the car, and the cost of embedding the coils in the road.”

These are not simple, overnight fixes. The technology is destined for the safety cars in the first series and may prove adept at  charging the cars while parked up in the garages, where coils do not have to be fitted to the city roads themselves. It will be far more challenging when applied to a dynamic setting – charging cars while on the move – or when fitted to the lightweight race cars.

And as discussed previously on Current E, finding a way to recharge the batteries is already a significant engineering challenge for Formula E, even with conventional methods. Using something as avant-garde as wireless charging may prove one step too far, even if Qualcomm is not aiming to begin fitting the tech to the race cars until season two, kicking off late in 2015.

While wireless charging is an exciting if predictable move, Qualcomm’s announcement that it will be providing detailed race telemetry comes as a surprise. The Formula E specifications published on the official website state that telemetry will not be permitted. The series is still evolving of course, but that seems a fundamental change likely to please the racing teams.

Reportedly, the telemetric data will be available for spectators to view too, and may be used to underpin a real-time computer racing game, which may prove to be little more than a marketing gimmick.

Formula E wants to be relevant to real life and engaging for tech-savvy audiences. This move will certainly help. The Qualcomm deal is simply the latest in the list of high-profile partnerships that the promoters have tied up thus far, but arguably the most indicative of just how ambitious the series is.

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