Here's how Formula E deals with short battery life, and here's why it's wrong.
When a Formula E car runs out of juice, the driver has to pull into the pits, hop out of the depleted car and jump into a second car. This second car will have a fully charged battery.
The races are an hour long, and two pits stops for switching cars is mandatory. Yep, they have planned car-swapping pit stops, as detailed in the rules right here.
The obvious solution is to just switch to a spare battery, rather than to an entire spare car. This would require teams to press the boundaries of battery swapping, an idea that has always seemed practical in theory, but has never been successful in practice.
One of the first great uses of battery swapping came from one of the first great hopes of the electric car industry: the Electric Vehicle Company. They ran a huge electric taxi company in New York City around the turn of the century, figuring it was just as easy to change batteries on an electric car as it was to change horses on a traditional carriage cab. The system worked well for years, until new management overstressed the system.
A more recent great hope for the electric car industry was Project Better Place. You swapped batteries like you got gas - at a station. The actual swapping system was like an automated car wash, only the machine pulled a big battery out of your car and slotted a refreshed on in its place. The company went under after a few years.
Even Tesla claimed it was getting behind battery-swapping and even did a 90-second demo. We're now looking at a year waiting with that program.
After seeing these precedents, it's easy to understand why Formula E decided not to go with battery swapping, but the specific reasons they gave in an interview with Gas2.org don't make much sense.
First, Formula E's representatives point to safety, noting that the battery is sealed to "UN transportation standards" that require "a fire resistant and fluid-tight material." They conclude with a slightly odd mission statement against battery swapping.
Battery swapping is not a practical solution due to size/safety etc. More importantly though, this is not our aim. Formula E aims to develop the battery duration and the charging side, as well as the drivetrain motors to eventually only have one car per driver and longer races. In short we want to push the technological boundaries of what is currently achievable rather than use a temporary measure.
I'm not convinced that battery swapping is a 'temporary measure.' I might call it a failure thus far, but I think it's an interesting technology that could use more development. Formula E would be a perfect place to figure out how to exchange batteries quickly and safely.
I understand that I'm being a fairly traditional worthless blogger going, "oh, you're facing a massive engineering hurdle? I don't care fix it right now anyway." But that's kind of the point of FE. They're supposed to face engineering challenges. Experts don't expect a breakthrough in batter technology until the next decade, and we have a real chance to make battery-swapping a viable alternative much, much sooner.
The whole world seems to be standing against battery swapping in favor of seeking out better batteries (even if they're made of hydrogen). Formula E's car swap instead of battery swap takes a good opportunity for development and trades it for something completely gimmicky.
I mean, at least let them sprint from their old car to the fresh replacement, Le Mans style.
Photo Credits: Formula E