Driving home the good news about electric carsWed, 09/08/2017
Electrics cars have come a long way, with the efficiency and technology advancing at an incredible pace. Sir Richard Branson has played a key part in this development and has begun paving the way to a quieter and cleaner future for cars.
Harriet Alexander, The Telegraph, reports:
Sir Richard Branson – showman, self-publicist and master of the media – could hardly have come up with a more symbolic setting if he tried.
Last weekend, his electric car racing team sped through New York City, clocking speeds of 150mph (240kmph) in cars built with technology he believes will make petrol-run cars obsolete.
“Being in Trump’s backyard, and with influential people around, does provide more context to the conversation,” admitted Alex Tai, Sir Richard’s team manager.
“We’re not here to sell cars. But we are part of a large transportation company, with our planes and trains, and soon cruise ships, transporting tens of millions of people a year. And if we can do that in a sustainable way, we think that can only be a good thing.”
Yet Sir Richard, speaking to The Daily Telegraph on the eve of the race, said he took no joy in the US situation following the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement – despite his evident pride in the sleek cars, which to the untrained eye could pass as Formula One.
But, at a press conference to discuss his team, he said he was heartened by the attitude of the US public.
“I think there is a big difference between Americans and the Trump administration,” he said.
“America is full of brilliant, brilliant people with brilliant minds who want to do the right thing. The sad thing is that some of the things that are coming out of the Trump administration seem to be anything but that. And obviously, seeing as today we are talking about climate change, it was America first and our beautiful globe last. And it does seem incredibly sad.
“But Americans are stepping into the breach – cities, businesses. And going to do everything they can to keep America on track and deliver the change pledges that were made in Paris.”
His DS Virgin Racing team, led by driver Sam Bird, who won both races at the weekend, however, know that they have their work cut out.
Despite the headline-making success of Elon Musk’s Tesla cars – his Model 3, an eagerly anticipated $35,000 (£26,700) vehicle that will be given to the first 30 lucky owners at a “handover party” on July 28, has had over 400,000 pre-orders – Americans are still not convinced.
Electric cars account for only 1pc of US car sales, and in a country wedded to their cars, where new SUVs are promoted on TV as Christmas gifts and cheap fuel is taken for granted, it is not an easy sell. Sir Richard and his team hope that Formula E, as the electric racing circuit is known, will change that.
The series started in 2014, when a group of car manufacturers went to the FIA motor racing authority and together laid down the ground rules.
From the beginning, Formula E was designed to prioritise efficiency and technological developments over speed – an electric car, said Mr Tai, could already be made to go far faster than a Formula One vehicle.
That was beside the point. This year’s circuit began in Hong Kong in October, and went on to feature races as far afield as Marrakesh, Buenos Aires, Monaco and Berlin – always in the city centres, to attract maximum crowds. It concludes on July 30 in Montreal; this is the first time it has been held in New York.
And, with the Manhattan skyline in the background and the Statue of Liberty looking on, some 8,000 people on Sunday packed into the Brooklyn cruise terminal in Red Hook to see an hour of exhilarating racing.
“We are showing people who might have previously been doubters that there is technology, there is range, and that it can be alluring,” said Mr Tai, a former RAF pilot who, in addition to being captain of the Virgin team, is also set to be the first Virgin Galactic pilot – and still flies for Virgin Atlantic.
“This is an aspirational sport.”
It is also, he pointed out, one which car manufacturers have embraced. While Formula One currently has three manufacturers involved, Formula E has nine.
“Those are car manufacturers who are interested in this technology, and using it as a rapid prototype,” he said. “They are learning in this competition to develop the technologies, and those technologies will trickle down to the man and woman on the street who wants to buy those cars.”
For now, the drivers complete the laps – 43 on Saturday and 49 on Sunday, around the 1.21-mile course – in teams of two, switching cars midway due to the limited capacity of the lithium-ion batteries. But from next season, the technology will have advanced at such a rate that only one car will be needed.
“So the efficiency has doubled,” said Mr Tai. “The technology is really advancing at an incredible pace.”
If Mr Trump had attended, would it have changed his mind? The cars are quieter, cleaner and, within a few years, enthusiasts hope more enticing than traditional models.
“I don’t think I have any influence over him,” said Sir Richard, who famously blogged about their first meeting several years ago, and how, over lunch, Mr Trump told him in detail how he planned to spend the rest of his life destroying his enemies.
“And I have been quite outspoken. He had hundreds of the most influential business leaders in the world speaking to him about Paris, and he ignored them. “So there is by no means any guarantee we will change his mind,” he said.
Understanding the environmental impact cars currently have, and knowing the steps that can be taken to reduce that impact, is hugely important if the aim is to make a real difference.