By Keith Weir
LONDON (Reuters) - A new series of high-speed electric car races in city centers around the world will aim to boost the market for battery-powered vehicles and advance the technology behind them, its backers said on Tuesday.
Formula E, which has the blessing of motor sport's FIA governing body, plans to stage its first race in Beijing next September and has signed up commercial partners including French car manufacturer Renault SA and tyre maker Michelin.
Formula E Chief Executive Alejandro Agag said the excitement of cars racing at speeds of 220 kph (135 mph) through the heart of cities including London, Miami and Los Angeles should help electric vehicles to shrug off an image problem and fine-tune their technologies.
"Electric cars are still perceived as slow, even as ugly or not cool, something that people don't want to buy for their day-to-day lives," said Agag, who is investing $100 million in the series with fellow Spaniard Enrique Banuelos.
"We want Formula E to be the place where all those technologies are tested, where all those advances happen," Agag told a presentation in London.
Agag's ambitions were supported by a study from consultancy EY saying the races could help to boost electric vehicle sales by as much as 77 million units over the next 25 years - a dramatic increase on current levels.
New York-based market research firm ABI for instance estimates global electric car sales will reach 150,000 this year and grow 48 percent annually to reach 2.3 million in 2020.
California-based Tesla Motors Inc has already demonstrated the performance capabilities of electric propulsion with its 125 mph Model S.
However the Formula E contest could also show the range limitations of current battery technology, since each vehicle can only be driven for 25 minutes before the driver will have to swap to another.
The first Formula E cars that racers will drive look similar to those used in Formula One - hardly surprising given that F1 teams McLaren and Williams will supply the electronics and battery respectively.
Renault, which provides engines for F1 teams including the dominant Red Bull, will oversee the integration of the various systems, while Michelin supplies the tyres.
Organizers see the 10-team series as complementary to F1, a glamorous money-spinner that attracts global television audiences of hundreds of millions.
Agag said he expected the races to appeal more to families, helped by the absence of the ear-splitting engine noise that is part of the Formula One experience. Tickets will be cheaper too. "We are Formula One fans so this isn't any kind of competition, but our price range is going to be lower."
Formula E has signed up Rupert Murdoch's Fox to broadcast its races in the United States and more than 80 other territories. Agag promised plenty of thrills and spills.
"We expect quite a few bumps, tyres are very hard, with very early braking, and slippery circuits unknown to the driver."
Formula One is also aiming to make itself greener and more relevant to mainstream car making, thanks to rule changes next season that will involve smaller engines being introduced and less fuel consumed during races.
Vincent Carre, head of electric vehicles at Renault, said he believed the new races were a timely showcase.
"We need Formula E to explain to people that electric cars are for today not for tomorrow," Carre said, adding that more charging points should soon become available in major cities to help tempt motorists to buy the vehicles.
Renault and its partner Nissan Motor Co Ltd are global leaders in electric cars, but Renault Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn told the Financial Times this week that sales were four or five years behind target.
(Editing by David Holmes)