Oxford: Speed has always been everything to supercar builders, and now they’re in their lifetimes to go electric before climate policy cuts off their combustion engines.
That’s why Ferrari and Mercedes-Benz are looking to startups like Oxford-based electric motor company YASA for the expertise and technology needed to solve the unique challenges of electrifying top-performing vehicles.
Batteries are extremely heavy and electric motors overheat if driven too hard – big problems for a niche industry that charges hundreds of thousands of dollars for lightweight cars capable of howling 10 laps at full throttle.
This year, Daimler bought YASA, which developed a high performance “axial flow” electric motor weighing 23 kg (50.7 lb), a fraction of a V12 engine weighing nearly 300 kg in a Ferrari, and having to roughly the size and shape of a steering wheel.
YASA already makes engines for Ferrari, Swedish supercar maker Koenigsegg, as well as an unnamed British supercar company. It will now supply the high-performance AMG brand to Daimler, which will soon take its car company name Mercedes-Benz.
Based a few kilometers from YASA, Saietta has developed a range of water-cooled axial flow motors. The company is preparing to produce engines for the large Asian motorcycle market, but said Reuters he had created a larger prototype and was in talks with a hypercar builder, and two others had expressed interest.
“These builders know the combustion engines forward, backward and upside down,” said Graham Lenden, commercial director of Saietta. “But they don’t know about electric powertrains and what they’re looking for is someone to hold their hand.”
Yet this is uncharted territory with no clear roadmap for electrics for high-performance vehicles. Supercar builders will have to invest billions of dollars to survive the demise of combustion engines, with no guarantee that the technologies they adopt will pay off in the long run.
Weight is the enemy
Premium supercars and hypercars – two sports cars that border on professional-level performance – are a very profitable and capital-intensive niche market for automakers.
Consulting firm AlixPartners and data firm IHS Markit estimate that more than 152,000 “luxury” and “super luxury” sports cars priced between 100,000 and 10 million pounds (137,000 to 13.7 million dollars) will be sold globally in 2021, with the market expected to grow nearly 50% to 223,000 cars in 2026.
YASA founder Woolmer, however, said his company’s long-term mandate from Daimler was to reduce the costs of future iterations of its engine so that the German automaker could use them across its entire lineup of cars when it came down to it. goes electric.
“Automotive technology doesn’t adapt to volume overnight, you tend to start with high-end niche areas,” says Woolmer.
The manufacturers of efficient electric cars will eventually have to find the means to develop lighter and more powerful batteries. But since today’s battery technology can’t compete with the sustained power of a gasoline engine, they’re also redesigning everything from electric motors to body materials.
Axial-flow electric motors are flat, round devices – nicknamed “pancakes” – that are lighter and more efficient than conventional “radial-flow” or “sausage” cylindrical motors.
YASA’s engine is oil-cooled, so it will never overheat and is much more efficient than a conventional engine, said Tim Woolmer, who developed the device as part of his doctorate at the University of Oxford, then founded the company in 2009.
Because the motor is more efficient, it can extend the range of an electric vehicle by up to 7%, or because it uses less power, it allows automakers to remove some of the heavy batteries and reduce the weight of their vehicle by 10%, he added. .
YASA has a small facility at its head office in Oxford where it manufactures engines for Ferrari’s SF90 Stradale and 296 GTB hybrids, and tests engines for AMG. Daimler is studying how to increase this production in its own factories.
YASA CEO Chris Harris said its acquisition by the German giant did not end its work with clients like Ferrari.
“They want us to continue working with our supercar customers because it’s the vanguard,” he added. “This technology, when it matures, cascades.”
Ferrari CTO Michael Leiters described the YASA engine in its hybrid models as a “car first,” adding that the Italian sports car maker would draw on the technical expertise of suppliers in its quest to switch to electric.
Wanted: Battery Revolution
Automakers are also looking beyond the engines in their weight loss plans.
Mate Rimac, CEO of Croatian electric hypercar maker Rimac, said the chassis and body of his C-Two model were both made of carbon fiber and the batteries were part of the car’s structure to save weight. .
The company, which forms a joint venture with Porsche, Volkswagen’s luxury sports car unit, which will include VW’s Bugatti brand, also uses “torque vectoring” to improve performance – motors in the wheels to help. to take turns.
British sports car maker Lotus has developed a new electric platform using lightweight aluminum alloys that reduces the vehicle’s structural weight by 37% and will start producing its first fully electric sports car in 2026.
Owned by Chinese Geely and Malaysian Etika Automotive, Lotus also operates as an automotive supplier and engineer for other automakers. The company is in advanced talks to supply the platform to another automaker and has received expressions of interest from several others, CEO Matt Windle said.
“With the cost and speed of electrification, collaboration is the way to go,” said Windle.
Chinese automaker FAW has teamed up with U.S. engineering and design firm Silk EV to form the Silk-FAW company, which plans to build electric sports cars in Italy.
It uses carbon fiber components for the vehicle chassis and is looking for a high revolution engine that uses aerospace copper wire technology to reduce engine weight by 20%, although it is also exploring other options. .
“The weight saving is even more important than a higher power level,” said Roberto Fedeli, Silk-FAW vice president for innovation and technology.
Reducing weight and using more efficient engines may be enough for most wealthy sports car buyers who use their vehicles for recreation or for commuting, and they are unlikely to want to do several high-speed laps around it. ‘a running track.
Those who do could be in a long wait.
“Unless batteries go through a massive revolution, you will never be carrying the amount of power that a fuel tank will carry,” said Woolmer, founder of YASA.
“For the longer races it will take a while.”