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Electrifying Speed

I guess I’m a gearhead. I like double overhead camshafts, six speed transmissions and small-displacement, high revving engines that make lots of noise. I like fast cars with great handling. I’m having trouble adjusting to hybrids and even more trouble adjusting to plug-in electric cars that need to have electronically generated noise added to alert pedestrians. Low-performance econo-slugs aren’t interesting to me.

A colleague, not a car guy, suggested that electric cars would never sell until they raced at the Daytona 500 – maybe a NASCAR car in electric blue. That hasn’t happened yet, but electric cars are setting speed records.

The Buckeye Bullet (version 2.5), an electric car designed and built by students at Ohio State University’s Center for Auto Research, recently set an international record for electric cars, an average of 307.7 miles per hour in back-to-back runs on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. That may seem slow, but the wheel-driven land speed record car needed a 3,750hp turboshaft engine to go 470.4 mph.

The Buckeye Bullet was sponsored by Venturi, a French electric vehicle company; and used lithium ion batteries designed by A123 Systems of Watertown, Mass. Both are involved in the production of electric or hybrid passenger cars.

Some may see racing or speed records as frivolous, but there’s a precedent. Henry Ford used the proceeds of a race with a Winton automobile to found his original company. “Old 999,” a car built by Ford and driven by Barney Oldfield, gained immeasurable publicity. Henry Ford, himself, drove another “Old 999” to a speed record of 91.37 mph. “Old 999” helped build the Ford Motor Company. Other companies also raced to prove the practicality of their cars.

Then, as now, the speed wasn’t the point. The point was to establish that the thing could be done, indirectly proving that the same technology could be used to build practical, useful vehicles.

Gearheads are going to have to give up. High-performance, gasoline-powered cars have a fascination, but they also have problems. There is a finite supply of oil. Clean as today’s gasoline-engine cars are, they still contribute to environmental pollution. Electric cars, hybrid or plug-in, are going to replace them.

That may OK, even for gearheads. As shown by the land speed record car, electric cars can be high-performance cars. If any further proof is needed, check out the Porsche 918 supercar concept: 718 total horsepower, 0-100kph (62mph) in 3.2 seconds, top speed of 320kph (199mph) and a claimed 78.3 mpg. The Porsche 918 is far beyond most people’s means, but it’s a hint of what’s to come. We can use far less oil, create far less pollution and still have high-performance cars.

As usual, the semiconductor industry will be at the forefront of this revolution. Better batteries will be essential. Even more important will be more efficient power transistors. They are needed to convert battery DC power to more efficient AC motor power and to convert efficient AC alternator power back to DC to charge the battery. Also important is better micrologic control of the transition between gasoline and electric power. All of those semiconductors are on the way.

I’m still not ready for a Daytona 500 with electronically generated noise.
Morry Marshall
Vice President, Strategic Technologies