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Sorry Jeremy Clarkson, the future of supercars is electric

All the major motor shows are now filled with electric concept vehicles and even established players with unrivaled heritage like Ferrari are announcing plans to release electric models. Will electric vehicles come to denominate the supercar market?

Mercedes SLS AMG Electric Drive
Mercedes SLS AMG Electric Drive

For a number of years, it seemed unlikely that electric cars would ever gain much traction at the top end of the market. This was largely ascribed to consumer tastes. Supercar owners were typically expected to prefer the feeling of interacting with the vehicle through a manual transmission and hearing the distinctive timbre of a large naturally aspirated petrol engine. The supercars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as the Ferrari Testarossa for example, reflect these ideals.

In this regard, the biggest advantage of electric cars was also the source of their biggest image problem among hardcore enthusiasts: electric cars don’t have gears. As electric motors generate usable torque in a much wider band of speeds than an internal combustion engine, gearing is simply unnecessary. In addition, some of the first electric vehicles to gain mass market acceptance, like the Toyota Prius or the Nissan Leaf, did not exactly set pulses racing in terms of performance.

Jeremy Clarkson: “That’s the future and it’s made of petrol.”

Thus, electric cars used to be regarded as slow and boring to drive, and did not have the manual transmissions and low engine growl that typically appealed to petrol heads. A repeated trope of shows like Top Gear and the Grand Tour was to manufacture scenarios in which electric cars ran out of battery and supposedly left the presenters stranded. In a 2017 episode of the Grand Tour in which this storyline was recycled, Jeremy Clarkson quipped “get a petrol-powered car, put some petrol in it and be home in 2 hours. That’s the future and it’s made of petrol.”

Despite all this bad press, however, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, Porsche, Mercedes as well as a myriad of other exciting start-ups are all developing either hybrid or fully electric vehicles. So what has caused this dramatic shift in the supercar market?

The Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S

The most important factors here are speed and performance. There has been an increasing tendency for supercar manufacturers to move away from obsessing about the theoretical top speeds of their vehicles, given that they are impossible to reach in all but the rarest of circumstances. This change in focus had made acceleration a far more important performance benchmark and in this area, electric vehicles rule the roost. Indeed, the two fastest accelerating production road cars on Earth are either partially or fully electric. The Porsche 918 Spyder uses a 4.6-liter V8 engine in combination with two electric motors on the front and rear axles to achieve a mind-boggling 0-100 km time of 2.2 seconds. The all-electric Tesla Model S P100D uses its instant torque to cover the same distance in 2.28 seconds, when the aptly named “Ludicrous +” mode is enabled.

In addition to acceleration, electric cars also offer potential benefits in terms of weight distribution and stability. For example, the battery pack developed by Tesla spreads the weight evenly across the chassis of the vehicle, which results in an almost even weight distribution of front 48%, rear 52% in the Model S.

The Porsche 918 Spyder is the fastest accelerating production road car on Earth (0-100 km).
The Porsche 918 Spyder is the fastest accelerating production road car on Earth (0-100 km).

Another reason that supercar manufacturers are going electric is due to changes in transmission technology. Whereas the older automatic transmissions featuring torque converters and planetary gears were slower and less efficient than a manual transmission, this all changed with the advent of dual-clutch transmissions in the early 2000s. These modern computer-controlled transmissions can accelerate faster and more smoothly than any human driver using a gear stick. For this reason, supercar manufacturers have already switched over from manual to automatic transmissions in their petrol vehicles. Indeed none of the current generation of supercars from Ferrari, Lamborghini, McLaren or Bugatti have a manual transmission.

McLaren: “stick shift is not even a conversation at this point”

“For the technological level of integration our cars offer, a manual gearbox would reduce the performance capabilities—which, for Ferrari, is unacceptable” remarked the head of product marketing at Ferrari, Nicola Boari, in an interview with Bloomberg. In the same article, McLaren spokesman John Paolo Canton argues that “the quantitative argument for a stick shift is not even a conversation at this point”.

Thus, as manufacturers have already decided to dispense with manual transmissions, it becomes a relatively small jump to switch to fully electric propulsion, especially if faster acceleration can be achieved. For this reason, expect to see many more fully electric supercars in future.