How R&D Looks to Race Cars to Develop New Technologies

How R&D Looks to Race Cars to Develop New Technologies

By Justin Schaefer

Is a Prius actually a race car? Well, of course, it isn’t exactly a race car, but believe it or not, a lot of manufacturers are using technologies developed in the racing world for consumer cars because they make cars better – no matter who is driving them. This popular and exciting sport has led to vast enhancements in clutch technology, overall performance and fuel efficiency amongst many other aspects.

The Direct-Shift Gearbox: A New Take on an Old Clutch

One way that R&D directors are enhancing cars is with a new take on the old clutch, the Direct-Shift Gearbox (DSG). The DSG is essentially two transmissions in one. One shifts through the odd-numbered gears, and the other shifts through the even-numbered gears. This way, the next gear, up or down, is always ready to be switched at a moment’s notice. No clutch pedal needed to disengage the transmission and no missed shift points, just a touch of a button and you’re in the power band of your choice. While minivans may not have an actual DSG, the one-touch shifting that is becoming standard in production cars is a direct result of that technological breakthrough.

Pretty cool, eh? The DSG is the product of a racing pedigree. When lap times are measured in milliseconds, and one missed shift can cost the race, innovations like the DSG are prime motivations for racing R&D.

More Overlooked Innovations That Originated From Race Cars

Other commonly overlooked racing-derived innovations include: push-button ignition, independent suspensions, specialized tires, disc brakes, aerodynamics/air management, dual overhead cam shafts, lightweight materials, and nearly every safety feature on cars from seatbelts to rear-view mirrors.

Racing and the Electric Car: The Formula E Championship

There’s a new breed of racing that is gaining a fanbase due to its high-tech nature and its blistering speeds. The FIA Formula E Championship (Formula E) race series pits electric cars against each other for 50-minute races. The 2017 racing season is the third in the series’ history, and the fourth race is due to run in Mexico City, on April 1, 2017. Just recently, BMW and Mercedes-Benz announced plans to sponsor Formula E teams, joining long-time rivals Jaguar and Audi. Already, we are seeing technological breakthroughs due to this racing series:

“Racing is a motivation for the teams and brands that race to win. Every one of my teams, wants to win. Audi wants to beat Renault, Citroen wants to beat BMW, to show that their technology is the best. To give you an example;, since we started the championship, every season we do two more race laps on the tracks than the year before, with the same battery. This shows you how much Formula E is improving electric powertrains.”

– Alejandro Agag (Founder and CEO of FIA Formula E Championship)

The cars themselves are hyper-technical electro-rockets that can accelerate from zero to 100 kph in less than three seconds, and can attain speeds upwards of 225 kph. To the racing-minded reader, these numbers may not seem impressive. After all, typical combustion engine race cars surpass such speeds easily. But, gasoline-powered cars have been on the race track since their inception, 100 years ago. The Formula E racing series, on the other hand, started in 2014, only 3 years ago. The speeds and technologies we can expect to see from this type of racing have just barely scratched the surface.

Currently, all Formula E teams are forced to drive the same car chassis (or, at least a car chassis that is ‘homologated’ to prevent costly development wars), which makes them focus on developing better battery technology. One of the most important rules of Formula E is that battery packs cannot be swapped out during a race. Because of limits to current technology, the no-swap rule and racing for 50 minutes means that each team must have two complete cars ready to race. This may seem strange now, but in the long term, it means that R&D directions will either develop battery storage or faster recharge times.

Despite the problems with batteries, teams can find other ways to lower energy consumption by modifying energy-use algorithms or other energy-saving tweaks. As an example, for the past few seasons, the amount of energy allowed to be re-harvested through the use of technologies such as regenerative braking, was capped. In the next season, that cap will be increased, leading to development of new, more efficient energy recycling methods. By tweaking the rules, the sport instigates innovation in different areas each season.

New Innovations From Race Cars

And that leads to the next point: what technologies will come from the Formula E racing style? First and foremost, racing teams will primarily focus on battery capacities and sizes. Research and development dollars will, as a result, be pouring into these technologies. Since we all know that a lighter weight is always a major driver in racing, we can expect to see improvements in battery weight as well.

Even now, high-end super cars such as the McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 use hybrid gas/electric power plants to deliver record-shattering laps and bone-breaking acceleration. Regenerative braking is standard practice on all production electric cars, and the algorithms for energy use have been modified due to efforts on the race track. Obviously, the ability of racing to effect technology in the consumer sector is proven, and due to the high-tech nature and novelty of electric cars, it is likely we will see rapid adoption by manufacturers looking to capture buyers in this rapidly expanding market.

Driverless Car Technologies and Racing

So, what’s next? Well, in 2016, the first race in the driverless car racing series was “Roborace.” In this series of races, everyone must use the exact same car, but load their own driving algorithm onto it. That’s right… drivers aren’t a factor, just code.

The future of this style of racing should be monitored carefully. Who knows what these cars will look like in 10 years? With no driver to carry, and no centralized controls and instruments for them to manipulate during the race, what are the limits to the designs of these cars? What will happen when the Roboracers go electric? The future is wide open for car technologies, and the newest styles of racing are ensuring that they get here… fast.

Image courtesy of

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

More of Our Insights & Work

Never miss an insight

Get insights delivered right to your inbox

You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address.