Transport is changing, and one of the biggest ways in which it is changing is the shift to electric vehicles. That change is slowly starting to seep into the world of motorcycling as well. Electric motorcycling manufacturers have sprung up in many places around the globe, though more often than not as tech startups in Silicon Valley rather than as engineering firms from more traditional motorcycling regions.
The more established manufacturers have also started to show an interest. BMW offers an electric scooter, the C Evolution, and KTM sells the Freeride E in three different versions. Slowly but surely, a solid engineering base is starting to form for electric motorcycles.
This change has not gone unnoticed by Dorna. The Spanish firm who run MotoGP are making plans for an electric bike racing series, provisionally scheduled to be starting in 2019. That is very provisional, however: a lot of work still needs to be done before such a series can take place. Bikes need to be found, and circuits need to be modified to ensure they have the facilities needed to host, and most especially, recharge the bikes ready for racing.
To find out more about what an electric bike series might look like, and how far along the planning stage Dorna is, we spoke with MotoGP Director of Technology Corrado Cecchinelli.
Question: How are you involved with the electric bike series?
Corrado Cecchinelli: I’m more in the present stage, which is finding out if there is any chance at all to make a good race, and to explore the technical possibility of the present machines, and guess what it will be in a couple of years, which is difficult. Because in that field you have to assume it will be a lot different. So this is what I’m involved in. Because no decision has been taken, even about doing it or not.
Q: Where did this push for an electric bike racing series come from.
CC: I'm not the right person to answer this, but my personal opinion, which is not necessarily Dorna's position, is that we cannot be not leading the motor trends, so we cannot forget that electric motoring will be dominant in the future. So, we need to be ahead of that. We need to at least test and see if it’s ready for racing or if we can push beyond it. This is just my opinion. To me we are in basically because we can’t be out. But, don’t ask me, I'm not the right person.
Q: Which bikes will we be racing? Will it be an open series full of prototypes, or a production series, or what?
CC: Proper electric motorcycle racing is so young and so far in time to me, that we are actually considering starting with a single spec series, in the hope that it will prove to be a good formula. Then maybe open it in the future or not, this depends. But it will not start as an open formula with different solution prototypes, because this is something too big that needs big investment, or to have different players and so on. You can have very different levels from different suppliers which could make bad racing. So if we start, we start with a single-spec formula, and maybe we will consider opening it up in the medium term where we realize racing makes sense.
Q: Will it be single make or have multiple manufacturers?
CC: Opening the category needs to come after someone comes knocking at our door to do that.
Q: The manufacturers you were talking to, are they existing manufacturers or are they the traditional manufacturers?
CC: We talked and are talking to a big number of parties, I would say. For me, I would prefer to stick to existing manufacturers
Q: Existing electric bike manufacturers?
CC: Yes. Because making an electric bike is not an easy project, and I am not confident that someone who doesn’t have one now will have one in a couple of years’ time. So, I would stick to those who have an electric bike, and try to guess what this one could be in a few years. But not just existing manufacturers, because we had a lot of interest for potential manufacturers that are not in the business now, but for me they come after the existing manufacturers. In an ideal ranking, all of them come after all of the existing manufacturers.
Q: So the way to look at this series is like Moto2, in a way? Because when you choose a Moto2 engine you want to be certain that the engine manufacturer can produce an engine which is going to be reliable, will perform, etc?
CC: Yes, but all of this to a much bigger extent, because the challenge is much bigger.
Q: Looking at it now, how long would a race be? Could you have a five-lap race, ten-lap race?
CC: A reasonable number to me is around ten laps in a couple of years. This is reasonable. All the rest is not founded, rubbish. It’s a multi-variable problem because race distance, speed, and bike weight all interact. If you adjust one of them, you touch the others.
So, if we talk about a reasonable race, which means a reasonable pace, a reasonable weight, the reasonable range that comes out with the technologies you can imagine in a couple of years, is around ten laps. It of course depends on the track and everything, but you cannot expect 25 laps and it would be silly to start with two laps. Aim to around ten laps, which may be twelve or eight, depending on the track and on the situation. We are not considering for instance switching machines to extend the race. We want to make a reasonable race, and we are not against the idea of a short sprint race.
Q: But it would basically be 15 or 20 minutes perhaps maximum?
CC: Yes, in that range.
Q: What would the expected pace be? When you talk about that, are we talking MotoGP pace?
CC: This is even more difficult to say, but we would expect something in-between Moto3 and Moto2 in terms of top speed and possibly lap time, but we are not sure. Of course this is really a guess, an ideal target.
Q: Racing electric bikes poses a unique range of challenges. How does the danger and difficulty of of handling electric bikes, batteries, etc change organizing a race?
CC: Of course. There’s a lot of side factors to consider that are not part of the show or which the public will see, but we must consider even a lower level of issues than you are asking about. Just moving the stuff around the world brings logistic issues. Of course we will have to handle that.
As for what you see, unfortunately lower voltages seem not to be able to hit the target we mentioned before, reasonable races. So, for sure, it will be something in the range of hundreds of volts. So, this brings issues with batteries and even for mechanics and so on. We’ll handle all of that with the partner we will choose. We are not experts in that, but we will take care that these problems are sorted out or considered. Like crash-safe batteries that are certified and tested. But still what happens even if this crash, even if it is certified not to crash, what happens if it breaks? What is the potential danger? All of this will be considered. Consider that electric cars and bikes are allowed on the road, so it’s not impossible to imagine a safe environment, you just have to take care about it.
Q: Is racing electric bikes more inherently dangerous than internal combustion engines?
CC: For me, I don't know, but my personal feeling is that I would not be sure which one is more dangerous to carry on, a battery like that or 22 liters of fuel. In the end, I would say that we sort it out for instance fire issues, because it’s very rare that there is a fire on a machine, so why should we be able to sort out other issues with different formulas?
I remember when we introduced the Moto3 in place of the 125, a guy that I will not mention came to me and said, “You will see. This is ****. You will see. Every time you will have to postpone the following races because of engines breaking and oil all over the track.” It has never happened. Sometimes it happened like in Le Mans oil spills because of broken pipes after crashes. You can handle potential issues and urban legends by just taking care. It’s something that it’s already in this world, and the world is ready to accept to have an electric bike.
Q: For many fans, the noise of a race bike is one of the most important aspects. Is this a problem with electric bikes?
CC: It depends. It depends on personal taste. To me, this is also sort of depending on the generation. Probably you and me would like to have a heartbeat when we go to a girl and ask her to go out with us. The boys now are really happy by texting a message.
To me, if you ask me, I like the noise. I have noisy cars, noisy bikes. I like that. This is what my passion has grown on. I was fascinated by noise. I have always been used to noise. So, I think I would miss it. But don’t think this is general, because probably the boys of the present times will be used to electric motors and new technologies.
Maybe in 20 years noise would be prehistoric and a sign of old times, like two-strokes are now. If you see a two-stroke you can be passionate and you can like it, but still you see it’s something that is prehistoric. You see the smoke. You can like it. You can like the smell, but it sounds old. But, when four-strokes were replacing two-strokes, people in your seat were asking me, “What about the smell?” So, I think that it’s an issue for people like me and maybe you, but not in general.
For sure we care about our series to reward the fans with the noise, but that’s different. It’s a different race. It’s a different concept. It’s something that you do now for the future and you don’t know if race fans of the future will appreciate the old-fashioned sound of a four-stroke, or would like the whine of an electric engine because they have their electric bullet at home and they like to play with it, like a Tesla for instance.
Q: So basically people just need to get used to the idea?
CC: There is a transition what is difficult, but I think it’s sure that this bike will sound old and out-of-date sooner or later.
Q: In general, does electric bike racing present specific, unique challenges to tires?
CC: I think so. I’m not a tire manufacturer, but this is a question I can ask. If the question is, do you think that tires for this machine would present specific issues, I can answer this. I think so because the bikes will in general, even if you put yourself in a couple of years’ time from now, the bike will still be fairly powerful, but heavy. Also energy saving will be a bigger issue than with the fuel. So, there will be a challenge of putting together a resistance with the energy saving.
Q: Possibly involving energy recuperation, so regenerating energy in engine braking or…?
CC: I think 99% will do that.
Q: Because again, that produces more of a challenge on the tires because you’re putting more stress?
CC: I think at least at the moment it is very hard to hit the target of race distance without the combination. Which is not a lot, but still it helps. Maybe it’s more luck.
Q: Is the the biggest challenge facing an electric bike series right now just energy?
CC: Sure. That’s the only challenge I would say. It’s very easy if you consider that the battery is the fuel tank, and the motor is versus the engine. Electric motor versus thermal engine is a no-brainer for power and weight, so the problem is the energy storage. There, the no-brainer is the other way round. That’s the issue. I don’t expect revolutions… There will be revolutions in consumption and everything, but if today you can deliver 250 horsepower with an electric motor like this, I’m thinking in a couple of years it will be the same. Maybe energy consumption will be a bit less, friction will be a bit better, cooling will be a bit better, but still to be a piece like this.
For batteries I would expect progress, from this to this to this. So that’s the challenge. That’s the real limit of electric motoring at the moment.
Q: Would you partner just with a bike manufacturer, or also with say a battery manufacturer or a power supply manufacturer?
CC: I don't know, but I would guess that the battery will be handled by the manufacturer, whereas charging on track maybe we’ll need a different partner. That’s a completely different issue. The tracks now are not ready. So, that will be an issue that probably will be handled by someone that is not the bike manufacturer but is in the energy distribution in the field.
Q: Basically at tracks there isn’t enough energy to actually charge the batteries?
CC: I don’t think that all the tracks at the moment are ready. I don’t think any of them, but I don't know. But for sure not all.
Q: So, at some point, you’ll also have to start having conversations with tracks about what's needed for electric bike racing?
CC: Yes. Of course it all depends on battery capacity, number of bikes, and everything. But I would assume that the scenario I told you about overall performance and so on, it would be difficult to charge 20 bikes at the same time in present tracks.
Q: Also you want to have a decent number of bikes on the track, so 20-odd bikes in race?
CC: I think 20 is a reasonable number. Maybe 18 or 22, but it’s not five and not 100.
So, in the range of ten machines, charging all of them at the same time is an issue, especially if you need a quick charge. There are difficult issues that you are not asking me about, like depending on the number of sessions during the day you have or not the problem of charging all the machines at the same time.
Q: So there could be a logistics issue where guys have multiple extra sets of batteries, some of which are being charged and some of which are being used?
CC: So, that brings to a technical detail which is, is it better to have for instance a bike that is designed to be very quick to change a battery – so you have charged batteries in the pit box and you just change the battery – or is it better to develop a quick-charging system and use the same battery for different sessions?
At the moment, the machines are not designed to have a quick battery change. So at the moment, it looks like quick charging is more promising than a quick battery change.
Q: So basically, just thinking about this series, it brings a completely new set of logistical challenges from what you’re used to?
CC: Challenges that you don’t even imagine. Like I told you, flying the batteries. That’s an issue.
Q: I didn’t even realize that the circuits wouldn’t have the charging.
CC: That’s an issue, which is new to me as well. I didn’t think about it but as soon as they told me I said, yes, clearly, that’s an issue.
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