Fresh Air and Metallic Hums: Smells, Sounds and Thrills from ABB Formula E Racing in Portland

June 25, 2023
These cars slowed down slightly for many of Portland International Raceway’s 12 turns, but in straightaways could hit speeds beyond 150 miles per hour on special Hankook tires propelled by 300-kW batteries within the Formula E’s new standard Gen3 bodies
PORTLAND, Ore.—Under an unlikely unbroken sky and warm summer day for the Pacific Northwest, a packed and enthusiastic racing crowd absorbed the sound and smells of the future Saturday.

As more than a dozen state-of-the-art purely battery-powered models sped past by them, what attendees at the ABB FIA Formula E’s sole American stop this season experienced was pure electronic hum and tires gripping track, with no odor at all other than the fresh Oregon air and some pollen.

No full-throated roar of combustion valves, no exhaust fumes of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide.

New Zealand driver Nick Cassidy maintained his recent dominance of American EV racing to capture the first-ever Southwire Portland E-Prix, taking charge early on and later overcoming rivals Jake Dennis and Antonio Felix da Costa. The Portuguese driver da Costa even jumped ahead late in the race, but Cassidy reasserted his lead near the end and showed his victory in last year’s Brooklyn race was no fluke.

The U.S. version of the international Formula E featured some of the characteristics of an Indy or NASCAR series race, such as drivers bumping tires against each other, a run into the wall and a series of caution flags. Yet the majority of the hour-long race was a marquee matchup of drivers testing the limits of battery-electric drivetrains built by teams such as Cassidy’s Envision Racing, da Costa’s TAG Heuer-Porsche, Avalanche-Andretti, Nissan and Mahindra, among others.

These cars slowed down slightly for many of the Portland International Raceway’s 12 turns, but in straightaways could hit speeds beyond 150 miles per hour on special Hankook tires propelled by 300-kW batteries within the Formula E’s new standard Gen3 bodies. All of the teams utilized the same tires, chassis and ABB battery charging systems.

“People need to understand what these cars are capable of,” said Bob Stojanovic, senior vice president of E-Mobility for ABB North America, in a Portland press conference earlier in the day.

And he was simply talking about the everyday vehicle variety as much as the cutting-edge thrill rides accelerating at the speedway.

The key point of Formula E is to spotlight that the technological thrills of high-level EVs can be replicated even if the car is emissions free and relatively quiet compared to internal combustion counterparts. It’s certainly doesn't lag in accelerative abilities, although issues of range and charging time must be worked out, which is part of the point of Formula E to test and learn.

Formula E is to consumer-level EVs as going to the moon resulted in inventions such as dustbusters and thermal blankets. Aim high and change the world eventually at everyday street-level.

The future direction of transportation certainly does not rest solely on svelte, high-powered battery-electrics, but the speed and allure of next-gen technology points the way forward for commuters, soccer moms and even fast-car enthusiasts. Automakers such as GM and Ford certainly think so, allocating billions of dollars into new EV models for the coming decade.

ABB has been sponsoring the 9-year-old Formula E global series since 2018. The Swiss-based energy-technology giant supplies the charging technology, a wager it’s made on the future of transportation electrification that also includes investing to build a future EV charger manufacturing facility in South Carolina capable of making 10,000 chargers per year.

Many of the company’s leaders gathered in Portland this weekend to both celebrate the Formula E series and underline ABB’s holistic commitment to decarbonization of essentially all sectors, from transportation to robotics to commercial, industrial and home energy efficiency technologies.

Industrial motors (and processes) use about 40 percent of the world’s electricity,” noted Jesse Henson, president of ABB’s NEMA motors division based in Fort Smith, Arkansas. “Data centers are massive for us and we want to make sure we’re in a position to help them save energy.”

ABB bolstered its energy efficiency segment by recently closing on last year's announced acquisition of Siemens low-voltage NEMA motors business. In fact, Henson had arrived in Portland shortly after visiting the motors plant in Mexico.

On the smart home technology front, ABB recently announced the acquisition of German firm Eve Systems. Eve is considered a leader in new Matter and Thread communication systems which make it easier to devices such as meters and other energy-saving systems to communicate with other devices regardless of whether it’s an iPhone or an Android.

“Matter and Thread is more reliable than Bluetooth,” Catherine Daubert, ABB product marketing director for the Smart Buildings segment, said in an interview with EnergyTech in Portland. “It’s easy to install and available on Amazon and in Apple stores.”

Energy efficiency is built on the same idea of a penny saved is a penny earned. The best decarbonization is the energy you don’t have to use, right?

True, but In Portland on Saturday, however, thousands of fans weren’t there to think about efficiencies and Net Zero predictions. They were drawn by curiosity about high-speed battery-electric racing and the promise of a thrilling race.

They saw a couple of bumps and crashes along the way, fortunately with no one hurt. They also saw Cassidy drive his Envision team’s creation into an early lead despite starting 10th, fall to near bottom of the top ten only to jet forward again and hold off Dennis and da Costa by the end. The second and third finishers were all within a second of each other.

The Southwire Portland E-Prix was the 12th stop on the worldwide ABB FIA Formula E tour, which started January in Mexico City and wound its way through the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South America.

The 2023 Formula E series winds up over the summer with races in Rome and London.