A few months ago, I was driving on Alligator Alley—a stretch of desolate highway in south Florida—and running out of gas. The last 30 miles went by on a prayer: I turned my AC and radio off, frantically calculating my mileage before finally turning into the first gas station I saw just as I hit empty.
I thought of that feeling while watching the drivers at the Formula E ePrix—an all-electric car race—on Saturday in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The race might be based on Formula 1, where speed is king, but the true test in this race is battery power, displayed on the big screen next to the driver's position. And when a driver's power is low, dropping to 30 percent and then 10, the tension is palpable. It turns racecar drivers in engineers, making careful decisions about their position on the course and the efficiency of their vehicles.
Formula E, which started in 2014, is part sport, part entertainment, and part awareness campaign for the future of sustainable transport. There were women in fitted American flag dresses, outdated relics of traditional race car culture, but also discussions about transferring energy from cars to the power grid. Transportation is a leading cause of carbon emissions—making up 27 percent of the US emissions—and electric cars have been touted as a major part of the solution. But the new technology still faces barriers like government regulation, cost, data privacy, and usability. Not to mention, many electric cars still aren't sexy.
"The fact that FormulaE can come to the cities is a beautiful showcase of what electric can also do—it's not just about environment, it's also about being cautious about people who live in cities," Daniel Simon, the chief design officer for Roborace, a company that combines automotives and artificial intelligence, told me.
Red Hook was an appropriate place to host the ePrix this year. This part of Brooklyn, which can be tough to reach since it's not on the subway line, is full of artists, parks, and the city's largest low-income housing project. But it's also home to the Tesla showroom and an Ikea, connected to Manhattan via ferry. Hosting FormulaE in this neighborhood similarly meant bringing together the old and new, the classic and cutting edge.
"I'm use to hearing differently languages but heard a lot more over the weekend," Tyler Waugh, a Red Hook resident, told me about the event. "I do wish they would have incorporated more of the local businesses."
Inside the private suites, housed under a massive tent structure on the waterfront, some of the world's largest automotive giants showed off the commitment to electric cars they hope to deliver to their customers. Jaguar, Audi, Mahindra, and Virgin Racing have all pumped significant resources into new models for both consumers and racing. Audi's new electric car E-tron looks like a suped-up hatchback, while Jaguar's I-PACE is more like a small SUV.
In the pit, engineers and mechanics from across the world spent the day gearing up for the race as visitors and media stopped by to ask questions. Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, visited the company's garage in the afternoon to announce a partnership with Kaspersky Lab, the cybersecurity firm, to protect against what the billionaire called known and unknown threats to the security of the automotive sector.
As the afternoon temperatures peaked, the crowd—an international mix of racing enthusiasts and energy nerds—took to the bleachers for the ePrix, 43 laps around the 1.21-mile track. The cars, sleek and low and light, would approach each turn in a crescendo of metallic buzzing. "I didn't realize how quiet the cars would be," said Waugh, who attended a car race for the first time.
While the first half of the race seemed like a test of speed, battery life soon took the stage. The cars use a 28 kilowatt per hour battery, more efficient than the one they used last year, but drivers still faced the threat of running out of power or overheating during the 50-minute race. Drivers switched cars in their garages as the event went on, with Virgin's Sam Bird sweeping the race both Saturday and Sunday.
As someone who would not spend too many afternoons watching race cars, Formula E is still thrilling in a way that transcends sport. As I watched the cars beat their past records of efficiency, I felt like I was watching a high-speed science experiment: Lessons from the race track will trickle into the way we live and travel over the next years. But there's still much to do before these cars become the norm. Because running out of battery power on Alligator Alley isn't any more enticing than running out of gas.