Thursday, January 26, 2012

What actual rocket scientists think about e-moto racing

My friend Lennon Rodgers - who was an actual rocket scientist before he returned to MIT to lead a team that fielded a bike in last year's TT Zero race - just sent me a draft version of a paper that he co-authored with Radu Gogoana and Thomas German. Their paper, entitled, Designing an electric motorcycle for the Isle of Man TT Zero race, and how electric vehicle racing could be used to spur innovation will be presented in Los Angeles in May. 

Since I'm always on the lookout for an interesting story - especially one that I can just cut-and-paste into this blog - I immediately asked him if I could excerpt it. He said that I could, and in the next few weeks, I'll get into a more detailed look at the MIT team's simulations and data captured during the event. Lennon tells me that some of the material they're presenting will put numbers to and provide explanations for the things that I've felt while actually riding electric motorcycles.

In the meantime, though, I wanted to preview this part of their paper which was primarily written by Tom German, who worked at Penske on both NASCAR and IndyCar projects. German, who is now a fellow at MIT's Sloan School of Management, looks at the role racing might play in the development of EV technology as a whole. 

The cliche is, 'Racing improves the breed.' I was interested to get the authors' take on a role for racing that is not just about improving individual bikes or selling a brand, but is about driving pure research improving consumer confidence in whole categories of vehicle.

Electric Racing

The Isle of Man TT Zero is an example of a new breed of “zero emission” races. The aim of these races is to spur innovation that will reduce the environmental impact of consumer vehicles. Racing has historically been a catalyst for innovation, particularly in the early years of motorcycles and automobiles [8]. New concepts were tested on the track, and the desire to win drove companies to produce superior technology. Consumer demand for better performance motivated companies to transfer the technology from the race track to the mass market.

The fundamental question is whether or not zero emission racing will yield the desired outcome. With the goal of contributing to the success of zero emission racing, this section outlines a set of guidelines for designing zero emission races that will yield relevant innovation. In this paper innovation is defined as the act of generating a product or service that (1) reduces the environmental impact of vehicles and (2) consumers want to purchase.

Drive technology

Many diverse participants, including inventors, academia, and corporate research labs, contribute to generating and developing innovative ideas. Consumer-focused companies choose relevant developments, refine them, and promote them to the consumer market. Identifying which ideas will succeed is a challenge facing all vehicle companies. Resources are often not available to invest in multiple emerging technologies. For example, it is costly for an automobile company to invest in batteries, fuel cells, and super capacitors simultaneously. Racing competitions should be structured to accelerate the transition from ideas to mass production and simultaneously facilitate the development of multiple technologies.

Provide valued entertainment

Any repeated event that the public finds entertaining will draw a large number of spectators both in person and through the media (e.g. internet, TV, etc.). Spectators and media drive advertising, which creates an influx of funds through team, rider and event sponsorship. These funds help finance the teams, who in turn develop the technology. Thus, valued entertainment is drawing in extra research and development funds that would otherwise not be available for that purpose (Figure 24). For example, an energy drink manufacturer might be indirectly funding battery research. This could translate into millions of dollars spent on zero emission innovation [9].

The influx of available sponsorship also reduces the risk that the team with the most personal wealth will win. In other words, sponsorships are typically chosen based on which team is likely to win; if the teams generating the most innovative vehicles are more likely to win, these teams would be rewarded through sponsorship funds to develop even better technology. 

Figure 24: Valued entertainment can produce millions of dollars in research and development funds. 
Consider the historical context

Gasoline vehicle racing has evolved dramatically over the last 100 years. Because of this, caution should be used when copying a modern gasoline race with a zero emission equivalent. Zero emission racing might require a different approach, and lessons may be learned from looking back into the beginnings of gasoline racing.

Patience will also be required when directly comparing modern gasoline and zero emission racing. It is easy to forget that it took decades for gasoline engines to make dramatic improvements. For example, it took 50 years for the first gasoline motorcycle to reach a 100 mph average lap at the TT. The electric motorcycles will likely reach the same milestone within 5 years.

Utilize the power of regulation

Regulations should be used as the fundamental tool to engineer a race for a desired outcome. For example, assume that consumers want to refuel their vehicle quickly; if winning a zero emission race is dependent on fast refueling, then the regulations are successfully guiding development. A successful racing innovation platform must focus on technology relevant to the consumer market.

Inspire consumer demand

It is critical that the races inspire consumers to purchase the technology that is found superior on the race track. Otherwise, true innovation will not be achieved through racing, and the objective of reducing the environmental impact of vehicles will not be achieved. One way this can be accomplished is through styling, and ensuring that the race vehicle has brand identity. For example, a motorcycle company should use styling that is distinct and that connects their race vehicle to their commercially available vehicles.

Secondly, inspiration can be found through education. The race should strive to inform the consumer of the environmental affects and implications of the various technologies.

Finally, races can inspire consumer demand by building confidence in new technologies. For example, racing could prove that rapid charging is feasible, which might convince the skeptical consumer that the technology will satisfy their needs.

It's clear that the organization and evolution of EV racing is, like EV technology itself, still in flux. Right now, there's a little too much posturing and rock-pissing going on, and not quite enough effort to actually create a racing series (or series, plural) that provide a rational forum for both competition and R&D. 

What we need are rational rules and a comprehensible 'ladder' from local series through a World Championship. Small-scale innovators need a place to prove concepts, and major sponsors need a potential return on investment. To the extent that proving the merits of EV motorcycles as practical road machines are one racing goal, the TT course remains a very relevant test - but it will never be recognized as such by the FIM or other international organizers. 

That said, what Lennon et al learned on the TT course was more relevant than anything that they could have learned on some short circuit. I'll delve into that in more detail in coming weeks.

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