Electric Innovations at Gasoline Alley

When the electric Tesla Roadster first launched from its starting position, the car accelerated from zero to sixty in under 4 seconds—a feat that took the Chevy Corvette sixty-years and six generations of gasoline engines to achieve according to the Berkley Center for Entrepreneurship and Technology. 

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As the pace of technological change quickens, electric vehicles are fast becoming the future of transportation on highways and raceways. But for Hoosiers like John Waters, these innovations have the potential to leave behind more than dust.

During the first week in October, Energy Systems Network—an Indianapolis based non-profit consortium focused on the development of the clean-tech sector—called together a team of world-class experts on vehicle electrification and professional motorsports to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Gasoline Alley for the Electric Vehicle (EV) Racing Design Summit. In a room colored with Post-it notes and heavy with the scent of Sharpies, task forces comprised of engineers, business executives, inventors, marketers, and designers huddled around PowerPoint presentations and sheets of white butcher paper to plot the future of electric vehicles in motorsports from concept design to business plan. In a single day, minds from Google, Verizon, Remy Inc., Ford, GM, Siemens, and Energy Systems Network created concept scaffolding and accompanying business solutions that would normally take months, even years, to accomplish.

For many Americans the term electric vehicle evokes images of golf carts or pint-sized electric buggies struggling down the highway—a thing less to be admired and more to be honked at. Yet in bold defiance of such perceptions, the Summit’s design team dreamed up an electric hotrod that will be faster, more efficient, and sexier than the traditional racecar. “We don’t want to make these cars apologies,” said Richard Parry-Jones, the former Chief Technical Officer for Ford Motor Company. “These will be the best and the fastest cars the industry can produce.” Parry-Jones, a Welshman and a self-described “absolute racing nutter”, is a historic figure in the development of alternative energy technology. Parry-Jones spearheaded the team that developed the world’s first hybrid SUV, the Ford Hybrid Escape.

Joining Parry-Jones and a crew of other electric vehicle gurus was Founding President of Waters & Associates and Sagamore Institute Senior Fellow John Waters—himself an EV guru. In the 1990s, Waters played an instrumental role in the development and production of battery pack systems for GM’s first electric vehicles, the EV1 and the Electric S-10. He was also apart of the Indy-based team that set the world EV speed record in 1994 (more on this later). While Waters holds considerable prowess as an innovator, he is an equally skilled social entrepreneur. “John is a visionary who is able to nudge people in the right direction. No one is better at pulling people together to get things done,” said Remy Electric Motor’s Dale Glubrecht, a friend and colleague of Waters. As one of the Summit’s organizers, John helped draw together some of the world’s best in fields from marketing to racing to electrical systems development.

But for Waters, EV racing is more than a contest. In 2011, he joined Sagamore Institute as a senior fellow to use the platform for accurately communicating the pro-economic and pro-social role behind alternative energy innovations. “It’s about making ourselves a better neighbor and improving the quality of our lives – economically, educationally, and environmentally.” Waters said. Remy’s Dale Glubrecht echoed Waters’ sentiments, “It’s about personal responsibility.” He continued, “I was never a tree hugging green freak. But I did start asking, how can we do things better? What really is the best thing to be doing with our time, money, natural resources and technology?” For Waters and Glubrecht it was developing a more responsible technology—with teeth.

In 1994, the world’s fastest electric vehicle driving on a closed course was clocked at 183 mph, and the car still holds the record for an oval track. “The technology was developed out of GM’s “skunk works” in Castleton, IN,” said Waters. “We are now targeting a 200 mph lap for the Month of May and a road course record at Nürburgring in Germany.”

Although these cars, fueled by lithium-ion batteries, fulfill the green agenda by eliminating carbon emissions, going green is not the immediate priority. The first priorities are to rejuvenate motorsports and advance the sport’s heritage of innovation. In 2009, officials for the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show—the largest show of its kind in the nation—told Indiana Business Journal that business for all motorsports companies was down 30 percent. Such statistics are a red flag for motorsports in general and especially for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has a staggering $727 million annual economic impact on the city (several Super Bowls worth). The development and expansion of cleantech racing could be a boon to Indiana’s economy not only for the economic impact of another racing series but for trickle down consumer technology as well.

Hosting the Summit at Gasoline Alley revives a century old tradition of innovation at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). From its inception, IMS has been an incubator for automotive ingenuity (Read more on Hoosier automobile innovation). Though invention in racing has slowed over the last 30 years, Gasoline Alley has produced innovations in tires, aerodynamics, safety, and automatic feedback technology. Some of this technology has translated to consumer vehicles and made them safer, faster, and more efficient. This year’s EV Racing Design Summit is giving IMS the chance to jump-start a wave of 21st century innovation. According to Paul Mitchell, the president and CEO of Energy Systems Network, “EV motorsports is about more than the race itself. It offers a collaborative platform for clean-tech innovation that can accelerate the delivery of real solutions to the marketplace.” He continued, “The competitive environment of racing will also lead to more cross industry collaboration among automotive, energy, and IT firms who each have an important role to play in shaping the way we use energy.”

Another priority for developing a meaner electric car is the impact it can have on consumer and investor perceptions. Current levels of market penetration for EVs are hazy, but developing a high-torque, high-power EV and a series to go along with it could likely change that.  “When we demonstrate the EV racing technology to a somewhat surprised world, it will find that it has underestimated the thrill and speed by a significant margin,” said Parry-Jones.

The final priority is a commitment to citizenship and economic development—the core of Waters’ work. “We’ve considered making an urban racing series and turning it into a weekend event where we leave a city better than we found it,” Waters said. “Wouldn’t it be spectacular to have race events held in depressed urban areas that could be substantially upgraded to accommodate a quieter and smoke-free motorsports competition?” Waters continued, “Similar to the Super Bowl phenomenon, we discussed how urban communities would unite to attract the racing venues knowing that it would bring revenues and reform to the area. We call this ‘racing with a purpose’”. Glubrecht added, “Not to mention the residents always make money from renting out their yards for parking space.”

For skeptics, the same racing formula still applies: speed, entertainment, and technology. However, one element may be noticeably absent from EV racing, namely, the invigorating rumble produced by the 675 horsepower internal combustion engines. Committed to covering every base, the Summit crew pitched ideas to compensate for the relatively quiet machines. For instance, with the advent of digital sound EV racing could feature fan-selected sounds that are equivalent to or even beyond what is produced today. Or perhaps fans would just enjoy the whine of the high-speed electric motors. Either way, the fan-base and surrounding community could decide on the level of sound to create the best possible experience.

To be sure, the wizards of the EV Racing Design Summit do not see EV racing as a replacement for the good ol’ boogity boogity of the internal combustion engine, but they do see it as a complement. Besides, one hundred years of tradition would not be easily displaced by a blazing whisper. Nevertheless, innovation in automotive technology is inevitable. Waters explained, “This is where automotive technology is going—someone, somewhere is going to do this. Why not have it come from the state that invented Motorsports (e.g., IMS) and electric vehicle powertrains (e.g., GM EV1)?” And why not? Especially if Hoosiers like Waters can direct the happenings at Gasoline Alley to make us all better neighbors in the process.

To the naysayers, Richard Parry-Jones offered a dare, “Once we have one of these cars built, come and drive it, you may not believe your eyes and ears.”

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