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DHL, Tesla and trickle-down EV innovation

In early April, nine teams of professional drivers sponsored by the likes of Audi and Renault descended on Long Beach, California, for a high-profile race.

Instead of jumping into traditional gas-guzzling race cars, however, the competitors in the Formula E Long Beach Grand Prix raced around a short urban track in single-seater electric vehicles.

"In terms of material for us, the change is radical for fuel and engines," said Pier Luigi Ferrari, head of Formula E logistics provider DHL Motorsports. "It’s really a brand new perspective of racing."

The two-year-old racing series — an offshoot of the prestigious Formula 1 race series — relies on unique, and uniquely pricey, glycerine chargers to eliminate the carbon footprint of charging and driving the cars. To cut down the remaining environmental burden of shipping the cars to race sites around the world, DHL has worked with other Formula E organizers to build a calendar that cuts out shipments back to Europe between events.

To be certain, it's hard to imagine direct transferability from high-end EV racing technology to everyday consumers and commercial users. Still, Formula E races happening from Paris to Buenos Aires to Beijing are examples of the increasing number of ways that electric vehicles pervade pop culture and pockets of the business world.

Luxury plug-ins don’t drive meaningful sales volumes but serve as early incubators of technology, providing critical 'trickle-down' innovation.

Experimentation with hybrid and electric corporate fleets at DHL and others, plus the rise of several electric bus purveyors, are a few examples of nascent activity in the enterprise and municipal markets. The fact that each new Tesla product launch invariably becomes a media circus is a more consumer-oriented example of how aspirational EV offerings are at least attracting attention to the market.

Where analysts say the disconnect is likely to occur is the timeline for translating hype at the high end of the market to mass adoption.

"Luxury plug-ins don’t drive meaningful sales volumes but serve as early incubators of technology, providing critical 'trickle-down' innovation," market intelligence firm Lux Research wrote in one recent report.

Lux gave the overall auto industry three failing grades for sluggish adoption of EV technology but pegged Tesla's forthcoming Model 3 and the Chevrolet Bolt as being the first to commercialize the "holy grail" of EVs with both a 200-mile, all-electric range and a price tag below $33,000.

The firm expects that EVs ultimately will reach the mass adoption tipping point of more than 50 percent new car sales between 2035-2045.

"It will take three full model cycles worth of development and iteration before the EVs take over the market, but automakers are showing progress on improving their offerings, with Tesla and GM leading the way," said Cosmin Laslau, Lux Research senior analyst, in a statement.

The action in the EV market also isn't happening in a vacuum. Many transportation observers expect electrification ultimately to merge with self-driving, or autonomous vehicle technology to unlock both efficiency gains and emissions savings. Also in the picture are carsharing and ridesharing providers such as Uber and Lyft, which both have hinted at various versions of this high-tech future that also calls into question the livelihood of human drivers.

In the meantime, Ferrari said that the companies behind Formula E are busy navigating the road toward a new generation of auto racing.

"We know exactly the pollution problem for us," Ferrari said. "We definitely invest, but It’s not easy. It’s really, really two different worlds."

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