Oliver Rowland (left) drives electric race cars through urban street-racing circuits.
NEW YORK — Oliver Rowland isn’t your average electric-vehicle consumer. As a driver for Nissan’s Formula E electric racing team, Rowland is arguably at the leading edge of what promises to be an EV revolution.
He, perhaps more than most people, understands the concept of range anxiety, that fear of running out of power: if he runs out of juice, he doesn’t finish the race. He tries to not let it bother him.
“When you begin your racing career in karting, you learn how to not let the stressful times get to you,” he said.
Formula E, which launched in 2014, is not just a racing circuit to entertain fans, it’s a testbed for the future of electric mobility. Unlike other racing circuits, teams compete with the same chassis, same powertrain, same tires and the same battery.
Where the engineers compete isn’t in nuts and bolts, it’s in lines of code. While the hardware is fixed among all teams, each is free to write its own software, and that’s where Formula E is seeing the biggest gains in the technology.
Such was borne out in the latest generation of the Nissan Leaf: its added range and power didn’t come from a bigger battery or more efficient electric motor, it came from increased computing power.
Rowland said Formula E isn’t a flat-out race. Instead, it’s about energy-management, making sure you have enough electrons on board to finish the race. A twist added for the current season makes that even more critical: instead of racing a set number of laps, the race is 45 minutes plus one lap.
“If you cross the finish line at 44 minutes, 58 seconds, you have to do two more laps,” he said. “So, you’re really trying to cross at 45 minutes. If I cross at 45 and the others cross just a bit under, I win the race, because they don’t have enough energy for two more laps.
“You really have to have in the back of your mind, is it going to be 40 laps, or 41?”
Michael Carcamo, Nissan Motorsports’ global director, said success in races really comes down to the driver, who has to process reams of data presented to him in the car to formulate his plan for managing energy.
Carcamo said Nissan’s interest in motorsports — as it is with most manufacturers — is driven in large part from the knowledge it gains and can apply to future consumer vehicles, whether that’s in gasoline or electric vehicles.
“The process of motorsports is a unique process,” he said.
“We have constraints and it’s about how you optimize within those constraints.
“That process is taken back to road-car development.”
Canada’s involvement in Formula E ended with the recent civic election in Montreal. Mayor Valérie Plante pulled the plug on the race, saying the city couldn’t afford what she described as a $35-million cost in 2018.
She offered to postpone the race for a year or move it to the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve race track. Neither was deemed acceptable by Formula E organizers, who have now sued the city and Plante for breaching a contract signed by her predecessor.
The Montreal race, which ran in 2017, was dogged with complaints about traffic closures, costs and noise. Formula E’s formula, if you will, is to run races on modified street circuits in downtown urban areas. The intent, Carcamo said, is to demonstrate EV technology to urban drivers while at the same time entertaining them with a race.
Carcamo, who stressed he doesn’t speak for Formula E, said a return to Canada isn’t out of the question, but did say the race circuit’s dance card is filling up.
“The calendar right now is very complicated,” he said. Complicating matters is that cars move from race to race, so adding a new or returning city means fitting it into the schedule in a way that minimizes travel time.
Asked what’s in it for host cities, Carcamo pointed to the desires of many cities to improve their carbon footprint through zero-emission vehicles.
“Formula E really helps to promote the EV ecosystem,” he said. “Rarely does it happen where a host city doesn’t have a desire to improve its EV infrastructure.”
He also pointed to the entertainment value. “Many of these cities have never had a race, ever.”
Nissan Formula E driver Oliver Rowland doesn’t let range anxiety get to him, a lesson that could apply to anyone fearful of driving an electric car.