F1 telemetry paves way for a winning formula in road cars of the future

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 4:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 March, 2014, 9:12am

The connected cars of the future will all be online, constantly swapping telemetry and receiving feedback on the state of their super-efficient hybrid engines. How do we know this? Because it's already happening in Formula One. The sport has a global significance that stretches far beyond its 19 races and 2.7 million live spectators.

But Formula One is a sport in flux. The chief differentiator between teams for years has been aerodynamics. But this year, the sport's governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), has changed the engine specification, and again allowed engine power to become a differentiator.

By replacing 2.4-litre V8 engines with the far smaller 1.6-litre V6 turbo engines, the FIA is trying to keep the sport as a test bed for the automotive industry.

"The reason that the FIA has gone down to the V6 engine is because it's more attuned to being in a road car," says Alan Peasland, head of technical partnerships at reigning world champions Infiniti Red Bull.

"It's a consumer car-sized engine, as opposed to a V8, which is for high-end cars."

The new regulations also reduce the fuel allowance for each car by around a third.

In the search for maximum engine efficiencies, Formula One is now using a new hybrid technology called KERS (kinetic energy recovery system), which consists of an electric motor that charges from energy produced by a car's rear axle.

This gives each car a turbo boost for around 30 seconds per lap, and it could soon find its way into road cars. The main drawback is that fans of the noisy sport are not impressed with the quieter engines.

"If that engine wasn't in a Formula One car, and was not being asked to achieve the performance that it is, it would probably be one of the most efficient combustion engines you could have in a road car," says Peasland.

"Formula One is pushing engine manufacturers to develop new technology that will find its way into road cars."

Modern Formula One cars are covered in sensors (around 100 at last count), which are used to measure several parameters.

"An F1 car is an upside down aircraft - it's like an elephant sitting on top of the car in terms of downforce," says Peasland.

"Monaco is a classic example of where downforce is critical, whereas the next race in Canada is the opposite, as it's a very high-speed race."

Achieving exacting performance on such diverse tracks requires data - reams and reams of it. As tracks change along with the demands on the cars, Red Bull engineers constantly debate whether new parts (as many as 32,000 new components were added to its cars during the 2013 season) are delivering the performance that was predicted in the factory.

"That's why we use lots of sensors," says Peasland. "We only have a short space of time, so we get the data back to the factory as soon as we can, so we can optimise the car for that weekend. Time is of the essence."

Sensors connected to onboard computers in road cars are becoming standard, too; some vehicles already tell you when a bulb has gone.

"We're just doing it at a slightly more complex level," says Peasland. "A road driver wouldn't need to know that the seventh gear is overheating, just that the car's gear box or transmission needs to be looked at," he says.

The future of connected cars demands some kind of data mainframe, something that AT&T provides to the Red Bull team on an epic scale. Fresh for the 2014 season is a global network that is 2½ times faster than last year. It links the sensors in the cars to the track-side network, which, in turn, feeds the garage, the pit wall and the technical office.

It's all hooked up to Red Bull's separate factory and wind tunnel facilities in Britain, as well as to engine supplier Renault's facility in France. It's all in real time, too.

"Around 100GB of data is collected by sensors on each car in a single weekend," says Bernard Yee, vice-president of AT&T Asia Pacific who is based in Hong Kong. "We also store all of the data from all of the previous races on that track."

If you ever wondered how big data can give a business the competitive edge, Formula One may be the ultimate example. It's a race that's just beginning.