OnQ Blog

Speedway to freeway: How racing tech hits the road

Sep 27, 2016

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn’t own. He is a contributing editor at Car and Driver and writes for various publications. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

Watching a Formula 1 driver blast around the Monaco Grand Prix circuit at 200 miles per hour might not be everyone’s idea of entertainment. But whether or not you’re a racing fan, it’s worth paying attention to those racecars. Why? A big chunk of that tech is going to make its way into your next car.

Formula 1, long the benchmark for exotic supercars, can stake legitimate claims to trendsetting for the mass market. And, over the past two seasons, the all-electric Formula E racing series has continued to lay the groundwork for our collective electric-vehicle future.

The tech transfer runs deep, right down to the materials from which cars are made. In the 1980s, McLaren F1 racers introduced the first carbon-fiber composites, which boast a pleasing combination of lightness and strength. The materials instantly made F1 cars safer and quicker. Now, thanks to steady improvements in manufacturing, carbon-fiber has trickled down to the mainstream; the passenger cell of the BMW i3 is carbon fiber, the larger BMW 7-series’s traditional steel-and-aluminum chassis is reinforced with bonded carbon fiber, and even the new Toyota Prius has a hatch made from the magic material.

Some of the most remarkable changes, however, are at the heart of the car: the engine. In 2014, the shrieking V-8 and V-10 engines that gave F1 its signature, frenzied adrenaline rush made way for turbocharged, fuel-efficient hybrids. Turbochargers are miniature turbines that force more air into the engine, which results in significantly more power without an increase in engine size. While ingenious, turbochargers can actually increase fuel consumption under heavy throttle. Updated V-6 F1 engines have whipped them into shape; new turbochargers, known as electric compressors, can generate and run off their own electricity. All told, fuel consumption is down by 35 percent compared to the non-hybrid cars.

Turbochargers are now in one of every four new cars sold in North America, and by 2020, nearly 40 percent of all new cars will have them, including one-quarter of all new hybrids. That figure includes street-legal versions of the cutting-edge electrically powered compressors scorching around Monte Carlo, too. The Audi SQ7 TDI three-row SUV is the first road-ready car to sport an all-electric compressor. To pull this off, Audi used an advanced high-voltage electrical system.

Like turbos, many of the computer-controlled performance tricks modern cars can pull off (think traction control and anti-lock braking) are rooted in F1. Launch control, a feature that drops the clutch and monitors tire slippage for quick acceleration, runs on cars like the Mustang. Torque vectoring, which distributes power independently across an axle, allows for sharper, more controlled turns; it’s available on a Honda pickup. Countless other driving modes — that tweak suspension, steering, throttle, and braking, and other vehicle systems — are now commonplace on consumer autos.

The next big upgrade trickling down from Formula 1 means drivers will have access to car diagnostics. Right now, Formula 1 engineers can wirelessly track everything a car is doing in real time; they know when a part might fail, if a tire is overheating, or if the driver isn’t shifting correctly. Production cars already gather most of this info, but it’s typically only accessible to service technicians through the on-board diagnostics (OBD-II) port. Smartphone apps even allow drivers to access the same info wirelessly, allowing for simpler early detection of worn parts — say, a wobbly wheel bearing — before they cause an accident.

Carefully monitoring diagnostics is becoming even more important on the racetrack, as all-electric Formula E cars push their 28-kilowatt-hour batteries to the brink. Although road-ready Teslas boast twice the battery life of Formula E racecars, torture testing batteries and charging systems on the racing circuit will inevitably reap benefits for consumer electric vehicles. Overtaxed, overheated batteries will fail, regenerative braking systems, which convert braking forces into extra energy, will falter. Formula E engineers will tear the cars apart and scan through the computer code, try new battery chemistry, and invent better cooling systems. One day, those advances will no doubt help boost the efficiency and performance of mainstream electric vehicles, too. 

Ultimately, the more racing engineers rely on electronics to optimize performance — and squeeze a few extra miles per gallon out of their engines — the stronger the connection between racecars and street cars will become. Algorithms, sensors, firmware, and batteries are certainly not sexy on their own. But together, thanks to modern racing, they’ll make us all smoother, safer, more-efficient drivers.