Nissan's ZEOD RC will be entered in the 2014 Le Mans Garage 56, a racing competition that showcases innovative, experimental vehicles.
How fast can electric go? Pretty freaking fast. We're not just talking all-electric racing cars, either. Motorcycles, boats, remote-controlled cars and even bar stools push the limits. "Electric motors have the advantage of instant torque, which means that you don't have a clutch and you don't have transmission," said Joshua Allan, vehicle engineering manager for electric drive system maker AC Propulsion. "That kind of power can get addicting quick." The vehicles featured here are based on top speeds instead of acceleration. Race parameters vary, and no one official organization evaluates all electric vehicle types. In some drag races, contestants have a quarter mile to be the quickest. In landspeed racing, top speeds are calculated over longer distances. Since records are regularly being broken, all of these leaders could change faster than you can say, "recharge."
In the world of quarter-mile drag racing, Bill Dubé's KillaCycle was the world's fastest electric motorcycle for a time. Driver Scotty Pollacheck took it 174.05 miles per hour in 7.955 seconds at the Bandimere Speedway in 2008. A record-breaking run only takes a few cents of electricity, Dubé told Discovery News. Then in October 2010, rider Larry McBride broke the record by going 177 mph on the "Rocket," a custom-built electric drag racer. The following year McBride shattered his own record, reaching 185.46 mph at Virginia Sports Park. Outside the drag racing arena, racer Chip Yates set an unofficial record in April 2011 by going 190.6 mph in the Mojave Mile. At the time he said his bike hit 227 mph during stress testing. Håkansson and Dubé put the KillaCycle in the garage and began working on an electric sidecar motorcycle called the KillaJoule. The shiny red 19-foot asymmetrical motorcycle, which was primarily Håkansson's handiwork, sported an A123Systems lithium nano-phosphate battery and EVO Electric AFM-240 motor. In August 2014 she picked up a bunch of records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, including the fastest speed in a streamlined three-wheeled electric motorcycle: 240.72 mph. She even beat out internal combustion-powered sidecar motorcycles. The racing duo has an eye on hitting 300 mph at the salt flats in the KillaJoule. "The computer shows the machine doing it so it probably will, but we don't know," Dubé said. "You can't brag about it until you've done it."
Limited battery space once made it hard for production electric motorcycles to approach highway speeds. Now that batteries are lighter and more compact, there are more choices. Zero Motorcycles' street legal Zero SR 2016 model can hit 102 mph, has a range up to 161 miles on the standard version, and cost about $14,400 after government incentives. The electric Empulse TT from Victory Motorcycles retailed for around $20,000 in 2016. Its fast-charging 10,400 watt-hour battery and AC electric motor with regenerative braking give the bike top speeds exceeding 100 mph. In late 2015, Yamaha indicated it was getting serious about electric motorcycles by unveiling the PES2 and PED2 concept bikes at the Tokyo Motor Show. Despite all the speed heading to the show room floor, the National Electric Drag Racing Association's longtime record holder in the production motorcycle category was a moped that went a mere 21.01 mph in June 2011. One reason for the low speed on the books is that a production motorcycle has set specs so the owner would have to tweak it to push the limits, voiding the warranty and insurance. An additional factor is limited selection within a reasonable price range, NEDRA PR and communications director Raymond Cooper noted. "
are better off buying a used bike from the scrap yard and starting there or, better still, building a custom bike from scratch," he said. "This gives the rider better flexibility in the setup and configuration."
In May 2011, the Formula 1 EV, an electric race car collaboration between French companies FCI and Formulec, hit speeds of over 155 miles an hour. Then in 2013 Nissan answered with the ZEOD RC, an arrow-shaped race car that hit 186 mph and qualified for the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans race – even though it only got in five laps before succumbing to a transmission issue. There are race cars, and then there's the Buckeye Bullet. In 2010, the electric vehicle built by Ohio State University's Center for Auto Research with an A123 Systems lithium-ion battery averaged 307.7 mph miles at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Its top speed then was 320 mph. "In order to get high speed, you need sleek aerodynamics so you're not holding the car back," said AC Propulsion's Joshua Allan. "You need high power so it can cut through the wind." That's just what Ohio State wants for the Venturi Buckeye Bullet 3, designed with the goal of breaking 400 mph when it debuted in 2012. The team hoped to try for that in 2015, but flooding at the salt flats threw a wrench into races. The VBB-3's average speed was 240.32 mph on a track so bumpy it punctured the vehicle's cooling tank. If the salt flats can manage stay dry in the future, the team has a decent shot.
The world record holders for electric production car in the speed category tend to be Teslas, no surprise. Although Tesla has several different versions of the Model S, the sport mode is programmable. First there was "insane mode." Then in July 2015, "ludicrous mode" arrived for the Model S P90D, allowing the car to go from 0 to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. "The auto industry for years sold people on horsepower," NEDRA's Raymond Cooper said. "And yes horsepower is great but on a drag strip torque is king, which is why you saw the video of the 707-hp Dodge Hellcat get spanked by a Tesla." At the Palm Beach International Raceway in January 2016, Brooks Weisblat reached 118.58 mph in the quarter-mile in his Tesla Model S P90D that he named after the website he runs called DragTimes.com. He used ludicrous mode. "I guess they rolled it off the truck and took it right to the drag strip, violating his warranty the day he got it delivered," NEDRA president John Metric said. "He's the only one who keeps applying for the record." If other car owners were as cavalier, competition could heat up. French automaker Venturi came out with the world's first two-seated electric sports car called Fétish in 2006. According to the automaker, a model for 2011 could go 200 kilometers per hour -- about 124 mph. "I look at the way that the automotive industry is going," said AC Propulsion's Joshua Allen. "They're trying to make cars quieter, smoother, easier to drive, better efficiency. And just by nature, you get all of those things with an electric vehicle."
Keio University Electric Vehicle Laboratory
An old Datsun? Eight wheels? No roof? Why not! Conversion and prototype electric car enthusiasts are like Doc Brown from "Back to the Future" with a heavy dose of eco-geekery. New Zealand engineer -- and Tesla Motors co-founder -- Ian Wright once converted an Ariel Atom open wheel sports car into a racing roadster with an electric motor and inverter from AC Propulsion. His Wrightspeed X1 prototype had a top speed of 104 mph, but went 0 to 60 in 2.9 seconds and notably beat a Ferrari 360 Spider in 2006. Testing it out in 2009, Road and Track's Dennis Simanaitis called it "the second-quickest car I've ever driven in my life." Brothers Sam and Olly Young modified a 1965 VW Beetle to make the Black Current III. In spring 2011, their ride hit 132.22 mph in the United Kingdom, setting a new record for a non-rail drag car. In 2010, they got to 135 mph. Looking under the hood the following year, All Cars Electric's Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield reported that its custom lithium cobalt oxide battery pack was similar to those in model airplanes. Then, in 2015, their vehicle reached 151.55 mph at the Santapod Raceway, nabbing the Extreme Street NEDRA record. In 2004, a team from Keio University in Japan created an eight-wheeled prototype electric car. The Eliica, short for "electric lithium ion car," reached 250 mph on a test track in Italy. It also accelerated faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo. John Wayland's converted 1972 Datsun still clung to the record for the NEDRA's ProStreet Conversion category in 2016. Back in September 2010 at the NEDRA Nationals in Oregon, driver Tim Brehm pushed the car, called White Zombie, to 123.79 mph. The back window read "SUCK AMPS!" "John is a great guy, but his title is hanging by a thread," NEDRA's Raymond Cooper said. "It just takes one guy or gal with one car and the right setup and boom -- new record holder."
What's the difference between an electric bicycle and an electric motorcycle? That question has been debated intensely at the National Electric Drag Racing Association. NEDRA president John Metric said that a more fitting category title for this Top 10 might be "electric bicycle conversion," meaning bikes converted to run on electric. He added that it's not a NEDRA class and probably isn't safe. That hasn't stopped speed demons from trying, though. Conversion kits promise 20 to 30-plus mph speeds and some DIYers claimed they'd gone past 50. The one-off eCortina V2 hybrid bicycle designed by Roy Prince in 2011 resembled a durable mountain bike on the outside but packed lithium polymer batteries. While the bike could be pedaled, using the motor alone got it to 45 mph. The electric commuter bikes made by Colorado-based Optibike have an average top speed of 25 mph, depending on the model. The 48-volt lithium-ion battery in the 2016 Elite Series Optibike R11 gives that model a 40-mile range and top speed of 33 mph. Luke "LiveforPhysics" Workman, a battery specialist for Zero Motorcycles, and his electric Death Bike raced a Tesla Model S P85 in late 2014. NEDRA president John Metric remembers the cyclist bringing his hopped-up bike to the track. "He snuck onto one of our NEDRA events up in Washington
," Metric said. "They let him race." Commenters were quick to point out that it wasn't really a fair fight. In a YouTube video of the Death Bike shooting ahead of the Tesla, the guy behind the camera shouts to Workman as he rides by: "You smoked him!"
Courtesy of John Paramore
In the early 1990s, John Paramore was working for an electric utility in Washington State that decided to include electric boat racing to promote recreational areas they were building around a reservoir. Little did they know what they were starting. In those early days Paramore helped pull together enough battery-laden boats to run through a kilometer-long pass called a "kilo." The first modified vessels were weighed down with batteries and had what Paramore calls giant "Frankenstein" switches. "They'd slam the switch on and hold on for dear life," he said. The first runs were 9 to 12 mph, mostly because the racers thought they needed to maintain flat planing boat bottoms for speed. Then in 1994, one of their racers discovered that enough air could be trapped under a hydroplane to lift a battery pack off the surface. With batteries underneath instead of on top, Paramore and his fellow enthusiasts were going faster than the 50 mph record held by the British. In 2008, the UIM, the international governing body of power boating, recognized American Mike Bontoft's 98.8 mph run in a circuit electric battery-powered 144-volt hydroplane. Bontoft and racing partner Lohring Miller set the record at Devil's Lake in Oregon. Their boat had fiberglass, carbon fiber, honeycomb and A123 Systems batteries. During an early test run, the boat hit 101 mph. Bontoft's record was still holding on the UIM site in 2016, but electric boats continued to evolve. In 2013, Mercedes-AMG and the Cigarette Racing Team introduced a 38-foot racing hull they said was the world's fastest and most powerful electric boat. Equipped with two independent Mercedes powertrains from the automaker's SLS AMG electric production car, the Cigarette AMG Electric Drive boat could reach 100 mph -- well over 86 knots. With new battery tech, Paramore told Discovery News he thinks racers can compete all day without recharging. "All this stuff is out there," he said. "It just depends on how crazy you are."
Ben Larcey / Flickr Creative Commons
Strip away the aerodynamic exteriors and you're mostly left with wheels. Electric people movers are the cousins to e-bikes, and can come across like the proud nerds of the EV family. Segways, the two wheeled self-balancing vehicles that debuted in 2001, are among them. The Segway PT has two settings, with the faster 12.5 mph being its standard. That's plenty of speed for tourists and mall cops, even though a world-class sprinter could easily lap one. Unless it actually crashes into the runner, like the Segway-riding cameraman who inadvertently took down sprinter Usain Bolt in 2015. Looking like a Dada-esque take on the Segway, the original Solowheel is a single wheel with spaces on either side for the rider's feet that retails around $1,500. The device is made by the company Inventist, has gyro sensors and a rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack that gives it 10 miles on a single charge with a top speed of 10 mph. The more powerful Xtreme Solowheel has a better range. When the hoverboard craze hit in 2015, the draw for these wheeled "rideables" definitely wasn't speed since many topped out in the 10-mph range. But one of the faster rideables was the ZBoard Pro electric skateboard, which could reach 20 mph on urethane wheels. For the even more daring, the Rockwheel electric unicycle boasted top speeds up to 26 mph. Unlike a circus-style unicycle, this $1,600 electric version contained a self-balancing gyroscope. Generally people movers aren't intended for racing. The best ones are safe, feel natural to ride, and are all about the journey.
Guinness World Records
If you want to know about racing battery-powered remote-controlled model cars, Nic Case is the man. In 2008, the builder put his small, bullet-shaped vehicle to the test on the Rockingham Dragway in North Carolina. His $4,000 custom-built car, a Schumacher Mi3, was constructed by hand from carbon fiber with an 11 horsepower motor, a 12-volt battery pack, a high-frequency receiver, and all-wheel drive. The pack was also rechargeable. Case's 1:10 scale car reached a top speed of 161.76 miles per hour on the dragway. Guinness certified it as the fastest battery-powered remote-controlled at the time. In 2012, he came out with a car dubbed the Bullet that went 171.96 mph in McFarland, California. To construct the Bullet, Case used off-the-shelf components from a Japanese company called Futaba, the site Inautonews reported. Then on October 25, 2014, Case went to the Radio Operated Scale Speed Association World Championships in Saint George, Utah. Not only did his Bullet smash the previous record, it broke the 200 mph barrier by reaching a top speed of 202.02 mph. The little car gave the impression of a jet roaring by.
Motorized bar stools were used as pit vehicles for a while, but the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah require them to be powered by electricity instead of gasoline for safety reasons. In 1998, a streamlined electric bar stool raced there for the first time there, going nearly 22 mph. Ten years later, Karen Mohr and her colleagues at the medical device engineering company IMDS made their own bar stool racer. Mohr was tapped to drive. "Some of the guys were terrified of trying it, but I really enjoyed it," she recalled. The vehicle had a 30-inch minimum seat height, was limited to one 12-volt battery, couldn't have a gearbox, and had to be made from a real bar stool. The top speed was recorded at three-tenths of a mile. Mohr set the record in 2009 at 53.557 mph, then broke it the next year, reaching 54.062 mph. Unofficially, the team got close to 58 miles per hour, but the record is an average of the top speeds. After that, bar stool racing at the Salt Flats sputtered out, likely in part because the strict parameters made it challenging to go much faster. In 2016, Karen Mohr Otto said the IMDS team had disbanded after she and the others moved onto other companies. But her 2010 top speed remained the record speed for that class. "It's definitely an unexpected accomplishment to have in life," she said.
Electric vehicles (EVs) are increasingly finding their way into the world’s most prestigious and competitive race tracks. While advances in technology have yet to allow fully electric vehicles to successfully compete alongside gas-powered ones, EVs are making strides toward outpacing their traditional counterparts.
The best evidence of this may be the Nissan ZEOD RC, which will be entered in the 2014 Le Mans Garage 56, a racing competition that showcases innovative, experimental vehicles.
“Nissan has already been out with a fully electric road-going vehicle, the Leaf, and now we’re taking it to the next level by doing a full lap at Le Mans,” said Rick Kulach, spokesperson for Nissan U.S. Motorsports. “A lap at Le Mans is eight and half miles, so we decided there has to be a way to make it work.”
While Nissan avoids the dreaded h-word, hybrid, the ZEOD RC operates on both battery and fuel power. “The ZEOD features regenerative battery charging,” said Kulach. “The vehicle is lightweight and efficient, so that a number of laps can be run in fuel mode, and then the final lap range will be extended under pure electric power.”
If it all sounds highly experimental, competitive racetracks have historically been breeding grounds for new automotive technology and some of the vehicles that compete are technically still in development. The major holdup in EV racing now is simply the limitation imposed by battery technology. In a road race competition, such as drag racing, a battery collects energy on turns and when braking. That energy advantage does not exist on an oval-shaped track, the type of track used by many speedways, such as NASCAR, according to EV pioneer John E. Waters.
“When you move to an oval course, when you have speeds up to 250 miles per hour, it takes a tremendous amount of force and rapid drain on the minimal energy storage of batteries as they exist today,” said Waters, who helped develop a battery pack system for General Motors electric car, the EV1 in the 1990s, and later founded Bright Automotive, inventors of the 100-miles-per-gallon, plug-in hybrid electric commercial vehicle.
“Absent a better battery life, another potential way of racing EVs would be to alter the track itself,” said Waters. “A track that would be similar to a slot car track would work to actually charge the battery as you’re going around the track.”
Until that happens, researchers are hard at work figuring out ways to use the current battery technology to its fullest potential. While that happens, a number of manufacturers are putting the best of their current EV technology front and center in world competitions. Toyota entered is hybrid model TS030 in the 2012 Le Mans competition, but a road accident followed by engine failure caused it to withdraw. This year, the same model was re-entered, but overshadowed by Audi’s R18 e-tron Quattro, also a hybrid car. The Audi model won the 2013 Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Nissan's ZEOD RC will be entered in the 2014 Le Mans Garage 56, a racing competition that showcases innovative, experimental vehicles.Nissan
The transition from the above-mentioned hybrid vehicles to pure electric cars in auto racing will happen, but it is still some years away, according to Brett Smith, the co-director of manufacturing, engineering and technology at the Center for Automotive Research.
“Electric cars are still not great for racing,” Smith said, “except for the fact that electric motors are fabulous performance pieces. “Energy storage in a battery does not compare to liquid storage in gasoline. The reality is it won’t be there in the next five years, maybe not even in the next 15 years. So racing is possible with constraints.”
Although Waters says experimental electric cars have achieved sustained speeds of more than 180 miles per hour and established world speed records above 300 mph, the issue will continue to be endurance on the track. But in a recent speech to the American Chemical Society, Waters said the real advantage electric cars have is “instant torque,” the twisting motion that turns wheels that has enabled electric test cars to go from zero to 60 in less than four seconds.
“Electric race cars have not sustained speeds more than 150 miles per hour because the lithium batteries currently used only last about 10 minutes before a pit stop,” Waters said.
Meanwhile, some researchers are working on the all-important issue of cooling the engine during a race.
“The ability to keep things cool is the ability to achieve higher power levels without things overheating,” said Wally Rippell, chief technology officer for AC Propulsion, a high profile developer in the EV market. “The horsepower rating of an electric motor is based on the ability to cool itself. If you look at races that last more than a few minutes, 10 miles or more, the cooling function becomes a central part of it,” said Rippell, who has worked on EVs since the 1960s.
Meanwhile, the consumer electric car industry is making the long hard climb into the American culture. Tesla Motors, under the direction of visionary Elon Musk, recently introduced a luxury sedan, the Model S, starting at $50,000. The lowest capacity Model S battery powers the car up to 160 miles per charge – at least 60 more than most competitors. The prices are still too steep for most car buyers, but it has been reported that next year Tesla will introduce another new model, starting at $30,000.
“My advice is the market will drive the product,” said Waters. “Make a better product that’s more fun to drive and people will buy it. The Model S is like that. Driving the Model S is a life changing experience.”