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Driving Change

Tis the season for some electric racing

Formula E plants its flag in NYC and returns for Season 8 as the city strives to increase EV adoption among New Yorkers and its fleet.

A Formula E race car in motion

Formula E fans attend for the thrill and excitement that comes from watching high-speed electric race cars. But it is also a celebration of sustainability and innovation. Photo courtesy of Formula E

On July 16 and 17, ABB Formula E FIA Championship, the electric vehicle motorsport, returns to New York City. With its eighth season well underway, enthusiastic fans and energized drivers are preparing for an exciting two days filled with screeching tires and futuristic electric race cars speeding alongside the waterfront in Brooklyn, New York. 

I’ve attended several Formula E races in New York, and each year, the event appears to grow in size and grandness — more fans, greater excitement and more cool tech on display. But Formula E is more than just another fun weekend excursion. 

"We want to prove that EVs can do anything gas cars can do, and we want all New Yorkers to see EVs in action every day," said Keith Kerman, deputy commissioner, fleet management, and chief fleet officer with the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). "Formula E symbolizes the same. EVs can race with the best and emit a lot less. Competition and sporting [events] are incredibly influential in our society."

DCAS is responsible for electrifying and decarbonizing New York’s fleet of 30,000 vehicles, ranging from sedans to garbage trucks. Similar to Formula E, Kerman and DCAS are in the driver's seat when it comes to transportation electrification, as they strive to showcase the benefits of EVs, he said.

With 15,000 people set to attend this weekend’s race, Formula E represents a cultural shift. At its core, Formula E is a motorsport, and fans attend for the thrill and excitement that comes from watching high-speed electric race cars. But it is also a celebration of sustainability and innovation, raising awareness for transportation electrification.

Formula E race start

Engineers from motorsport governing body FIA and Formula E are working on specifications and requirements to develop an innovative and safe solution for charging the Gen3 cars. Photo courtesy of Formula E

"Entering the race, you get the sense that the future is already here, and the future has arrived. However, you also see how much the EV market has matured through Formula E and as a result of Formula E's technological innovation," said Asaf Nagler, vice president of external affairs at ABB E-mobility, who heads up EV policy and market development efforts for the company. ABB, the title partner of Formula E, is a global technology company known for its fast charging stations.

In speaking with both Nagler and Julia Pallé, director of sustainability at Formula E, I learned more about why that sustainability bubble exists at the race. "The mission of Formula E is to accelerate sustainable human progress. The races are a platform to showcase what a sustainable future would look like from an everyday human perspective," Pallé said.

But while those attending the New York E-Prix may find themselves surrounded by a world in which electrification is going mainstream, the reality of EV adoption in New York is far different.

Recent reporting by the New York Times explores the difficult road ahead for electrifying the city's fleet, as well as the 1.9 million passenger vehicles registered across the city. When it comes to EVs, New York is faced with many challenges, some specific to its dense urban landscape. In discussing upfront challenges for the city, Nagler said electrifying public transit buses and commercial truck fleets, such as last-mile delivery vehicles, is key as "trucks are big polluters and disproportionately impact disadvantaged communities in New York City."

[Interested in learning more about the electrify-everything movement? Join leaders from the private and public sectors, utilities, solution providers, investors and startups at VERGE Electrify, online July 25-26.]

Based on the latest data from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, there are about 22,000 passenger EVs on the road in New York City, with 14,000 being full battery EVs. Adoption is growing. Last year alone, 8,528 EVs were registered, up from 5,213 in 2020 and 3,715 in 2019. Within the city’s fleet, there are around 3,100 plug-in vehicles, and DCAS plans to add 1,300 EVs in the next year. To charge these vehicles, the city has around 1,070 charging ports with plans to add 600 ports in the next year. 

In the grand scheme of things, the clock is running out. New York state has a goal for all new passenger cars and trucks sold in the state to be zero-emission by 2035, and New York City is working towards an all-electric, on-road fleet by 2040

What can any city or company looking to grow its EV footprint learn from Formula E? Pallé and Nagler shared some insightful thoughts, and here is what stood out to me: 

  1. Policy and legislation are key. "We need the right legislation in terms of infrastructure implementation," Pallé said. "To make EVs a reality on our roads, we need to have the right level of charging infrastructure and the right type."
  2. Be flexible and nimble. "The technology is moving too fast … so governments need the ability to get constant feedback on EV plans, take lessons learned and immediately implement into future deployments," Nagler said.

What’s in store for the future of Formula E and the EV industry? Pallé and Nagler teased some exciting developments for next season centered around ultra-high speed charging. Here is ABB’s official statement: 

"ABB will provide the charging technology for the Gen3 cars, which will be racing as of Season 9 in 2023. Together with engineers from motorsport governing body FIA and Formula E, our electrification teams are currently working on the specifications and requirements to develop an innovative and safe solution for charging the Gen3 cars. The Gen3 cars will have ultra-high speed charging capability of 600 [kilowatts] for additional energy during a race, almost double the power of the most advanced commercial chargers in the world with approximately 95 percent power efficiency from an electric motor delivering up to 350kW of power (470BHP), compared to approximately 40 percent for an internal combustion engine."

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