Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sport as Technological Laboratory

Accord to the FT, there is to be a new international racing series involving electric cars:
Electric cars will compete in a new global formula racing series after a deal between motorsport’s governing body and a group of investors who plan to stage international races around city-centre landmarks.

The Formula E championship will start in 2014 and involve 10 teams and 20 drivers, the aim being to draw competitors from traditional F1 teams, electric car companies and global brands.

Jean Todt, president of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile, last year pledged to launch an electric car racing series in response to the European Commission’s desire to get the car industry to adopt more sustainable forms of energy.
The structure of the race tells us something about the technological state of electric vehicles:
The Formula E teams will be offered an evolution of a prototype vehicle for teams to compete in the 2014 championship.

The prototype vehicle developed by Formulec, a French maker of electric racing cars, is a two-gear machine that runs off lithium-iron batteries and weighs 780kg.

It has a maximum speed of 220km per hour, and an acceleration of 0 to 100km/h in three seconds. It can run for 25 minutes before needing charging, meaning drivers will have the use of a second car to complete the one-hour race.
25 minutes? Ouch. By way of comparison:
In contrast, an F1 car, fitted with a 2.6-litre V8 engine with 750 horsepower, has a minimum weight of no less than 640kg, including the driver, and can have a maximum of seven gears.

F1 cars are capable of going from 0 to 100km/h in 1.7 seconds, and cars can reach speeds of more than 300km/h.
It looks like electric cars have a long way to go from the simple technological perspective of being able to participate in an F1-style race. For the Formula E circuit to be more than a gimmick it will have to actually matter to racers and fans, and to matter to fans the technology is going to have to advance. Governments who what to see progress on electric vehicles might consider underwriting such competitions.

One area where technological improvements via sports has potential to influence normal folks is the Paralympics, where prosthetics and wheelchairs offer the promise (if not always the reality) of meaningful advances:
Prosthetics in the Paralympics are the product of thousands of dollars of research and designed for a very specific purpose: improving sports performance. Their benefits may trickle down to the general population, but much of what is showcased at the Paralympics is restricted to elite athletes.

Bruce McLelland, an engineer who has an artificial leg, said the prosthetics used at the Paralympics are 'a world away' from what he uses.

McLelland has a normal artificial leg for everyday use and another one for swimming. He said his legs incorporate some of the design of the running blades, including being made of carbon fiber so they are lightweight while also being strong and flexible.

"The blades are great if you're going to go running, but they would not suit everyday life,'' he said.

Pistorius' blades are designed for sprinting at high speed so it's very hard to stay still on them without rocking.

"They also don't really fit well into your normal trouser legs,'' McLelland said.

McLelland said he usually watches the Paralympics to see the newest prosthetic technology, noting different designs in various sports, like the artificial legs used by badminton players, which are thicker than the running blades since they must be strong enough to allow athletes to jump sideways and quickly change direction.

"I think having that kind of flexibility in my prosthetic would be great,'' he said. In wheelchair sports, some countries including Britain and Japan have partnered with car companies to ensure the wheelchairs will one day be available on the mass market. To give athletes an edge in sports like wheelchair rugby and basketball, the chairs are now more agile and lightweight, an advantage ordinary wheelchair users could certainly benefit from.
Electric cars have a long ways to go to catch up with wheelchairs.


Post a Comment