Mumbai: If Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc. is considered to be the poster boy of electric cars, carmakers such as Audi, Porsche, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar Land Rover and BMW are also pulling out all stops to make their presence felt in the electric vehicle (EV) market.

That said, though, the race to showcase the future of electric cars is actually being run on the ABB FIA Formula E racing circuit with a dazzling dose of technology power—composites, longer-lasting batteries, enhanced powertrains, numerous sensors and a lot of artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms that can analyse the humongous amounts of data that is generated daily.

A case in point is the Mahindra group-owned Mahindra Racing’s M5Electro race car that was unveiled on 10 December 2018, which has a steering wheel that is fully configurable by the team. “Software plays a huge role in an electric car," says Dilbagh Gill, chief executive officer and team principal of Mahindra Racing—the only Indian motor sport team to compete in the Formula E Championship.

Formula E cars, Gill points out, are getting more complex and already have hundreds of sensors and many different complex electronics and software systems. A Formula E car, for instance, can have 200 data channels, providing information that must be collected and logged, generating gigabytes of data. Mahindra Racing collects data from every race. “Here’s where we are trying to use AI. In fact, last year we spent a lot of time in IBM’s Watson Lab to try and see what we can do with automation. Our big investment is on software and simulation," says Gill whose team spends close to 100 hours of simulation for every one hour on the track.

Other than data analytics, the electric racing cars’ powertrains are also becoming more efficient, according to Lewis Butler, technical director at Mahindra Racing. A powertrain (dubbed “powerbrain" by Mahindra Racing) includes the engine, transmission, driveshaft and axles—basically anything from the engine through to the rotating wheels that converts the engine’s power into movement.

“In Formula E, we have reached 93% efficiency. The reason (it’s only 93) is because we have used the mechanical gear box as per regulations. The moment we remove the mechanical part of it and focus on a motor inverter, we will have more than 96% efficiency," says Butler.

Moreover, every time the driver hits the brakes, the car’s kinetic energy is recaptured and converted into electricity. Moreover, since a reverse sensor feeds energy back into the battery, it almost doubles its efficiency. “We do not use rear brakes in the car anymore, making the car more efficient and recouping 15-20% of the energy used," explains Butler.

Meanwhile, the energy density of a battery has gone up too, which according to Gill, means that the batteries can be charged faster and “the anxiety of charging a car" will reduce.

India is targeting 40% electricity generation from non-fossil fuel-based resources by 2030. With the cost of lithium ion batteries consistently falling, and governments the world over discouraging the use of fossil fuels while encouraging the use of EVs, Gill believes the Mahindra Group would “have done 15 cycles of powertrain development, and be far ahead of its competition by that time (2030)".

The Mahindra group’s electric car journey began when it acquired a controlling stake in Reva Electric Car Co. in May 2010. Six years later, the company was rebranded as Mahindra Electric Mobility Ltd, following which Mahindra Racing “started working with them on its so-called ‘Race to Road’ concept", according to Gill.

The Pininfarina Battista.
The Pininfarina Battista.

As part of its ‘Race to Road’ strategy, the Mahindra group acquired automotive design company Pininfarina in December 2015. Three years later, Automobili Pininfarina christened its first car, code-named PF0, as Pininfarina Battista. This estimated €2 million luxury electric hypercar will be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in mid-March. “This is where we are going to see lot more of technology going forward," says Gill.

Further, Gill believes that the Mahindra Group can “literally take out the engine of a Formula E car and put in a road car—and it will run". Gill hopes to have this so-called “race-to-road" car ready in “18-24 months" as opposed to the “almost 4-5 years to do a similar exercise with a Formula 1 car".


How Mahindra’s electric car fares

■ The M5Electro is based on generation two of the Formula E race car, and is able to touch 100km/h in just 2.8 seconds and achieve a top speed of 280km/h.

■ The Mahindra group-owned Automobili Pininfarina’s PF0 (code name) electric hypercar will be unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in March

■ Automobili Pininfarina claims the Battista can travel for over 300 miles (483 km) on a single charge, and will be faster than a Formual 1 car at a top speed of 250 mph.