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Eco Machines: Designing Tomorrow's Cars Today

04/11/2014 14:04 GMT | Updated 04/01/2015 10:59 GMT

By Amanda Stretton

Since the realisation and acceptance that we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels at the rate we have been used to, manufacturers and consumers alike have been looking for alternative options; not least because of the environmental impact but also because energy resources are finite and increasingly inaccessible oil reserves are helping to create motoring costs equivalent to flying to the moon.

However, many people can't understand why racing a car is still a socially acceptable occupation. After all, these things seemingly run round and round, burning valuable fuel for no apparent reason. But what is not always fully understood are the huge advances that motorsport has made to both fuel efficiency and car safety, advances that filter very quickly into road cars and have a profound influence on the vehicles we drive today.

At its simplest, racing is all about covering a distance in as short a time as possible. People often perceive racing cars as gas-guzzling monsters, but what is not appreciated is that winning racing cars are also the most efficient. So a Le Mans car is designed for the single-minded purpose of racing for 24 hours while a Formula One car is designed to race for considerably shorter distances. That is because there is no compromise in their design; their sole purpose is to fulfil a certain mission. Competition is, as a result, high and this generates innovative thinking and technology. For example, in 2006 Audi introduced a revolutionary Prototype racing car, the R10, a turbo diesel, which went on to win two of the most important long distance races, Sebring and Le Mans, and was the first example of how efficient a turbo diesel engine was. It was so good that it was immediately beating the conventional petrol engine cars it was racing against.

Le Mans is also a test bed for other new technologies, with their 'Garage 56' invitation class. In this, cars like the Green GT Hydrogen fuel cell powered car or the Nissan Zeod fully electric car are proving how new alternative technologies can be practical in the real word.

Formula One is also breaking new ground with their rules on engines. The current engine carries 40% less fuel to travel the same distance, yet at very similar lap times to when they were running conventional engines. They are achieving this by re-harvesting approximately 160 break horsepower of energy through a variety of alternative means.

These new rules have been introduced by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile, or the FIA, with the specific aim of aiding the development of technology for road cars as soon as possible. No other sport can claim to contribute to, or have given any thought to, developing the technological solutions needed to solve the world's most pressing problems.

But there are still challenges with the way we currently approach road cars of the future. The lithium-ion batteries that power an electric car are heavy. A hybrid, like the Toyota Prius, is even more so, as it is carrying not one but two sources of energy. In the countryside, where I live, I would get approximately 3 miles of electric motoring in a Prius before I would be relying exclusively on my petrol engine, and because of all that extra dead battery weight, it would not even be that efficient. Conversely in cities, the average distance travelled means that in a Prius most of that journey is being made with an electric, clean engine. So rather than solely looking for alternative energy sources perhaps we should be asking which type of energy (petrol or electric) is best for the task in hand and specific environment? An all-electric car in the middle of Africa may help keep carbon emissions down but what of the financial cost and environmental impact of laying the infrastructure to support that electric car. Is that not more environmentally unfriendly?

So, while I genuinely believe in the merits of racing as a test cradle for developing new technologies, I also believe that there is no single option for the future of road cars.

And here is another thing. If you consider a Lexus hybrid, a Mercedes C Class or a Ferrari FF, they all are designed to carry 4 adults with luggage at motorway speeds in safety and comfort. They all are essentially designed to perform what I call, "full car missions" i.e. normal day-to-day journeys, whether that is the school run, family holiday, shopping in town or commuting with just one person driving in the city. If we are to adapt to the challenges the planet faces, I believe that cars will need to become much more specialised. The global megacities will likely become zero emission zones sooner than most people would imagine, and driverless cars will more than likely have real applications in urban centres for shopping and the like. There will still be a place for alternative fuelled family vehicles, but these will be in more rural areas where new energy infrastructures lag behind the cities.

So in my vision of the future, road cars will rapidly evolve to be more mission specific. Their function will be designed to do a specific job and will no longer have the current in-built redundancy of function found in most of today's cars. Motor racing, that has always strived to eliminate inefficiency in order to win races, will lead the way developing new ideas and possibilities.

Amanda Stretton is a British racing driver and leading motorsport journalist.

Amanda will be speaking at "Eco Machines: Designing the Cars of the Future" hosted by Intelligence Squared and Shell at Sackville Hall, University of Manchester on November 11th 2014