FIA plenary session highlights challenges of sustainable motorsport powertrains

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A plenary session at the recent FIA conference discussed ‘The Future of Powertrain Technologies: Toward Sustainable Motorsport and Mobility’. The discussion involved various representatives of national sporting authorities and the FIA, and looked at the subject of clean powertrain technology within the context of motorsport and the wider automotive industry.

Motorsport UK chairman David Richards opened the discussion, emphasizing that it is important not to disenfranchise existing competitors in pursuit of sustainable motorsport. “We have to achieve a balance,” he said. “We have 30,000 members, license holders, who have existing cars and want to participate, and we also have a demand from the general public who want us to move toward sustainability. We cannot disenfranchise existing license holders but we have to show leadership. We should introduce it at junior levels. For example, Cadet Karting is an easy level to introduce it at. We have governments that are focusing on electric to the exclusion of everything else, and we have to educate them that motorsport is a great platform for transforming transport very quickly.”

During the session, Motorsport Industry Association CEO Chris Aylett insisted that consumers are being dictated to by governments when it comes to switching to electric – an approach that is founded on the short-term view of politicians who will not be in power over the decades needed for the future of powertrains to be played out. “The challenge is: what is the future? Is it 10 years? That’s nonsense in technology terms. Is it 20 or 30? It’s fascinating to see politicians who are in power for five years having to talk about 10-year timeframes because they want the votes. We are going to make mistakes if we put speed before common sense. Is the future all-electric? Not a hope. Too many nations can’t adapt; can’t afford it. Electric won’t work everywhere.”

He added, “The internal combustion engine is a very efficient mode of mobility and has been so for 100 years. There is plenty of potential there if we weren’t in such a hurry to go electric. With regard to sustainable fuels, I am quite sure we will go forward into the future with an urban electric solution and a non-urban solution. It is a great opportunity for the FIA to work with the supply chain in motorsport to rise to these challenges.”

FIA Environment and Sustainability Commission president Felipe Calderón raised the point that some forecasts suggest that as battery development improves, electric vehicles (EVs) could be “equal or even cheaper than combustion-engine vehicles. If that happens, there will be a huge change in the market. It will happen because of a rational decision by consumers to switch.”

However, Robert Slocombe, the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia’s (RAC WA) group CEO pointed out that the approach appropriate for Europe does not necessarily reflect the changes underway elsewhere, with much lower uptake of EVs in some regions. “Average emissions intensity for passenger vehicles in Australia is 45% higher than in Europe. In Australia, the average age of a vehicle is 11 years. It will take a long time for electric vehicles to come through. EVs are very, very expensive, about 60% more expensive. Yes, economics will drive change but it will take quite a while,” he observed.

FIA Manufacturers’ Commission president Prof. Burkhard Göschel added that in his opinion, battery-electric vehicles in their current form are not totally sustainable and that the decisions of the EU have not been based on lifecycle assessment and the demands being made on materials. Better electric sources are needed, he said.

“We have a lot of electric motorsport series and we should put a lot of purpose on pushing battery technology. I know the costs could ramp up but we have to push. If we go to solid-state batteries and it fulfills the performance that has been discussed, it could outperform hydrogen fuel cells.” He added, “The other area is sustainable e-fuels. We have existing infrastructure for liquid fuels and we have a very weak infrastructure for electric vehicles. We cannot neglect that.”

The discussion concluded with a video Q&A with Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) president Pierre Fillon, who spoke about the future of hydrogen fuel cell powertrains in endurance racing and at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He concluded, “We believe that hydrogen is one of the best energies for future mobility. Hydrogen will play a key role in Le Mans in 10 years. We will have zero C02 emissions, with hydrogen as the top class and e-fuels in the lower classes, and we will stage an exemplary event in terms of social responsibility. Le Mans must remain an outstanding human adventure, a testing ground for mobility and a unique fan experience.”

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Lawrence has been covering engineering subjects – with a focus on motorsport technology – since 2007 and has edited and contributed to a variety of international titles. Currently, he is responsible for content across UKI Media & Events' portfolio of websites while also writing for the company's print titles.

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