Qualcomm Joins “Formula E” (as in Electric) Auto Racing Series

9/10/13Follow @bvbigelow

Auto racing enthusiasts often point out that many of the innovations in today’s standard production automobiles—including disc brakes, direct shift gearboxes, and dual overhead cams—were pioneered in race cars built by elite race teams.

So the idea behind the FIA Formula E Championship, a 10-city tour of motorsport races for electrically-powered “formula” cars (Le Mans-type race cars with the same chassis, tires, and power train) could prove to be a strong driver of new innovation as the electric vehicle industry takes to the road. The Paris-based Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) gave a green light to the idea last August when it licensed commercial rights to the new Formula E championship series to a consortium of international investors.

The cars now being built for the Formula E Championship series—which is on track to begin in late 2014—will be capable of accelerating from zero to 62 mph in less than three seconds, according to race sponsors.

Formula E race car (Credit: Qualcomm)

Formula E race car (Credit: Qualcomm)

Now Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM), the San Diego wireless giant, says it has joined with Formula E Holdings, the official promoter formed by the investor consortium, to become an official technology partner of the race series. As a technology partner, Qualcomm says it plans to “demonstrate how current and future generations all over the world can benefit from wireless, sustainable technology on and off the track.”

The FIA Formula E Championship series could serve as a showcase for Qualcomm technology—particularly the HaloIPT wireless charging technology for electric vehicles that Qualcomm acquired in late 2011. Qualcomm has been demonstrating the wireless charging technology in London.

Alas! Qualcomm’s wireless charging technology, which uses resonant magnetic induction to transfer energy from an electromagnet in a mat on the ground to a receiver in the electric vehicle, won’t be used to charge the Formula E cars under development. Instead, Qualcomm said it would be installing its wireless EV charging technology in the pace cars—also known as safety cars—that are used to limit the speed of race drivers during a caution period triggered by a hazardous wreck or obstruction on the track.

That must have been a letdown for the EV enthusiasts in the Qualcomm palace on Morehouse Drive. After all, Qualcomm brought its top European executive, Andrew Gilbert, to the company’s San Diego headquarters in 2012, to promote the company’s wireless charging technology (and their plans for a Formula One EV) for local media. Gilbert acknowledged at the time that plug-in systems for charging EVs are significantly less expensive than the wireless charging technology.

So it was hard to tell if there was any air escaping from the company’s enthusiasm when Qualcomm said only the safety cars would be recharged wirelessly during the inaugural season under its partnership with Formula E Holdings.

In an interview with U-T San Diego’s Mike Freeman, Qualcomm’s Anand Chandrasekher says the company wants to embed charging pads in the road along the race routes in future race series, so the Formula E cars could charge during the race. But Chandrasekher, who is Qualcomm’s chief marketing officer, adds that the company must refine its technology before that could happen.

Qualcomm said it also plans to evaluate the connectivity and mobile technology of the 10 venue cities around the world, and could provide technology to enhance the spectators’ experience—such as live streaming, video gaming, and social media.

Two U.S. cities, Los Angeles and Miami, are among the ones that plan to host the series.

A proposed calendar for the tour is scheduled to go before FIA for approval this month at a regular meeting of the World Motor Sport Council. The other cities named to host the races are Bangkok, Berlin, London, Rome, Beijing, Putrajaya, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. FIA’s final approval will depend on how well each city is progressing on such key elements as municipal approval, race course infrastructure, sponsorships, racing teams, and cars.

Races would begin from a standing start and last for approximately one hour, with drivers making two mandatory pit stops to change cars. During the race, EV engines would be restricted to power-saving mode (133kw/180bhp) but drivers would be allowed to accelerate to a maximum (200kw /270bhp) by using a “Push-to-Pass” boost system. More information about the race format can be found here.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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