I remember when Formula 1 teams first introduced the kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) a few years ago. At the time, it sounded like rocket science (or something out of the game F-Zero). The principle makes sense: harness wasted energy from braking to give a concentrated power boost for passing down the straightaways. In practice, however, such a system was quite complicated. At first glance, it seems a little over-the-top, even for F1. If you are looking at racing as a proving ground for viable features, what's the chance this would ever go mainstream for the average, non million-dollar, vehicle?
Speaking of spending money…
In college, I led a group of engineers that designed, built and raced a solar powered car 2500 miles across North America. While quite expensive at the time, the motor (with a whopping 11 HP), batteries, aerodymanic design and lightweight composites are now all making their way into the vehicles manufactured today. As it pertains to this article, the regenative braking feature of the motor has proven to be especially pertinent. In essense, that's where the idea for KERS came from - reverse the flow of electricity and a motor turns into a generator. You just need a place to store that energy and a system smart enough to regulate it.
So how does the transition happen?
Traction control, intelligent suspensions, and many other ideas have made the leap from racing to commuter vehicles. The challenge, as you might expect, is taking cutting edge (and super expensive) ideas from the race track and making them both affordable and practical for long-term use. Fifty laps in a closed environment isn't exactly replicating the average daily driving routine. So we consumers have to wait patiently for a few years…
When Volvo recently announced that it had developed a new engine using KERS technology to reduce fuel consumption by 25%, we all finally got to see the payoff for years of racing development. The flywheel design, in testing, has not only improved fuel economy, but it has also proven to make the vehicle faster by adding power to the rear wheels. Initially, the new KERS is being tested in Volvo's S60 model, but expect growing adoption as other automakers start to catch on. The concept could be coming to your fleet vehicles soon.
If you want to learn more about KERS and see a video demonstration, check out this link.