With much of the automotive and motorsport world on hold due to Covid-19, I sat down (socially-distanced over the phone, of course) for a chat with Frank Muehlon, who is head of e-mobility infrastructure solutions for ABB, the German firm that is title sponsor of all-electric race series, Formula E.
ABB is a big name in electric vehicle charger infrastructure, making Muehlon a key industry figure when it comes to understanding the future of electric vehicles, and how their batteries will be charged.
Being associated with Formula E also gives ABB insight into how motorsport can offer a trickle-down effect, where technological learnings made on the race track filter down into road cars and their charging infrastructure.
Today’s car chargers were beyond a dream in 2012
We began with the rate of innovation and improvements seen in electric vehicle charging, and just how quickly the benchmark has shifted in just eight years. “Things have accelerated for sure,” Muehlon says. “When we started in 2012 I think no one was expecting 350kW [kilowatt] chargers and six of them at a 2mW [megawatt] charging site. I think this was far away from even dreaming.”
Back then, just eight years ago, electric car chargers were generally offered with charge rates of 3.6 or 7.2 kilowatts. Some of these still remain as part of the public network, and the latter is still enough if charging a battery at home overnight. But rapid chargers, like those built in Europe by Ionity and in the US by Electrify America, are now up to the 350kW mark.
Muehlon adds with some astonishment: “If in 2012 you had shown someone a 350kW charger, I’m not sure what they would have called you.”
For now, Porsche and its Taycan lead the charge, so to speak, with a charge rate of 270kW through a CCS charger. But this is only possible thanks to the car’s innovative (and expensive) 800-volt architecture, double that of the 400v systems used by other electric cars.
Economies of scale
On such 800-volt systems coming to other vehicles Muehlon thinks it’ll take some time. “Right now there are cost implications because of the economies of scale. The components are all available on the market for 400-volt, but not so much for 800. So if you go for 800 you have to put more safety measures in place, and you tap into a supplier base with less economies of scale and that results in higher price tags.
“However, the advantages are pretty clear if you go for a higher voltage instead of current, you have a lot of savings in terms of weight and fewer efficiency losses. It makes a lot of sense, but for now it’s more in the premium segment. But there are enough OEMs looking into it and I’m confident that a couple of years down the road we’ll see more and more go to 800 volts.”
Solid state battery technology is said to be the breakthrough electric cars need, with far faster charging times than what is available today. However, it’s going to take a long time for the technology to arrive in the cars at your local dealership.
Muehlon explained: “I think it’s pretty clear that the battery is really the biggest challenge of the EV sector and it will remain so…Solid state, yes, that’s something everyone is talking about and we’ve seen prototypes. But we haven’t seen mass-produced solid state batteries yet. There’s a few guys out there saying give it another year, and others saying to give it another decade.”
Formula One is a relic of the past
Being the title sponsor of Formula E, ABB is closely linked to motorsport. It also has a front row seat for watching how the focus from car manufacturers has shifted from Formula One and its hybrid power units, to the all-electric (albeit somewhat slower and arguably less glamorous) Formula E.
Muehlon says: “Looking at the green energy and the environmental push we see from society, Formula One becomes more and more outdated and more and more a relic of the past. In that sense, Formula E is pointing in the right direction…Initially people were laughing about it, asking can these cars really endure a whole race. But look at it now, we have better technology to survive a whole race, and we have all the car manufacturers in there which were before in F1.”
When Formula E began in 2014, drivers had to change cars half-way through the 45 minute race due to their limited range, but since the second-generation car arrived in 2018, the 45-minute race can be completed in a single car. That essentially meant an impressive doubling of range in just four years. That said, F1 cars complete a 300km race in around 90 minutes without any refuelling.
Manufacturers taking part in Formula E for the 2020-2021 season (currently postponed due to the coronavirus) include Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nio, Nissan, Jaguar and Porsche.
Will recharging come to Formula E races?
Given improvements in charging tech for electric cars, and how Formula E could be the ideal platform for ABB to show off its charging capabilities, I asked Muehlon if pitstops for battery top-ups could appear in future races.
“There are discussions about that, absolutely” he said, adding: “But we haven’t finalized it yet because…you have to look at what you want to bring to a race. Do you want to bring excitement, or technology which you can also use in the real world?
“If you just do technology to create excitement, but never use it in reality, that’s not what we want to do. If you find something that can close the gap and use Formula E as a proving ground, then yes.”