The London Journalist sent writer Sophie Naufal down to the Paris E-Prix in a DS 7 CROSSBACK SUV to meet the all-British driver team (Sam Bird and Alex Lynn) and to become more familiar with the DS brand vision for the future.
Wide-eyed spectators spill over the edges of the grandstands in anticipation. The drivers hold rigid postures, determinedly gripping their steering wheels. Anonymous Europop blasts from the PA and the soft chatter of the thirsty crowd fills the air. The race is about to begin, but something is missing. The cars are silent. We do not hear the familiar frantic revving of engines. The race starts and the silence is broken by a truly unfamiliar sound. The high-frequency whistle of Formula-E’s race cars sounds nothing like the invasive growl of a typical auto racing event. This is because Formula-E is a racing event consisting of cars that run solely on electricity.
I am at the E-Prix of the fourth season of Formula-E, an event that is as much a car race as it is a spectacle showcasing the latest technologies in Electric Automobile manufacturing. It takes place in the heart of Paris, and I am lucky enough to have been driven across the channel by Kevin Jones, Head of communications at DS Automobiles in the outrageously cool DS 7 Crossback. This is one of the most important events for electric cars worldwide.
Parisien luxury car brand DS, developed in 2009 by Citroën but now a stand-alone entity, has teamed up with Virgin Racing to represent Britain in Formula-E. This season especially DS have a lot riding on this race, having just made a huge step towards electrification. They recently announced that starting from this year with every new model that they release they will also be releasing an electric or hybrid version. In addition, they claim that by 2025 they will be releasing exclusively electric or hybrid cars. With their reputation resting on ambitious targets like these, it is extremely important that their technology works well.
The cars that Alex and Sam, DS Virgin’s racers, drive are designed by DS’s motorsports division, DS Performance, who have the most cutting-edge technologies at their disposal. This race, however, is not simply designed to show off their technical advancements, but test them out on the road. ‘Our aim is to go from track to road. All knowledge that we gain from the races will be used on our road cars.’ Says Eric Apode, senior vice president of DS in charge of product.
I must admit at first when I was invited to an electric car race by a luxury car brand I was slightly confused and sceptical. Could electric cars really be made into the elegant and fast objects that a luxury car brand’s clientele demand? Why would a luxury car brand be so interested in electrification in the first place? Could they actually care about the environmental benefits associated with electric cars? Or was this just a superficial marketing ploy responding to current trends? The electric car company Tesla’s market value rose dramatically in 2017, overtaking even General Motors. Since then most other car manufacturers have been racing to reach out to the budding market, making announcements that they are going fully electric within the coming years. It’s clear that the money is in electrification but, as I examined the luxurious hybrid that DS had on display on the eve of the race, I did wonder whether anyone here truly cared about the future of our planet.
Perhaps they do, perhaps they have to. The innovation summit held just before the race convinced me that DS Virgin Racing’s interest in the environment is not just for show. One of the speakers, Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, gave an inspirational rundown on why, for the motor industry, having a successful business is increasingly dependent on how genuinely environmentally conscious you are. This is in part due to government regulations forcing companies to become greener. For the automobile industry specifically the pressure is huge. Internationally policies are emerging that penalise or ban higher emission vehicles from cities, or even ban non-electric cars altogether. In London electric and hybrid vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge. The internal combustion engine is being phased out, and fast. In addition, Figueres claims that ‘decarbonisation of the global economy is now no longer seen as a burden but rather as an opportunity.’ The market is necessarily changing and the race to electric mobility is on. Companies have the opportunity to accelerate to the forefront of this exciting revolution, but need technological advances and new marketing strategies to get there.
Another highlight of the summit was hearing from Lei Zhang, founder of the renewable energy company Envision. Initially one of my main concerns with the authenticity of the movement was that most electric cars are being charged up from the local electricity grid. This means that the source of this energy is more often than not non-renewable. The DS Virgin team teaming up with Envision suggested to me that DS’s desire to create a genuinely clean mode of transport was real. Their recent union suggests a clean future from source to road is on the cards. As far as I can see, the positive influence of electric cars starts now despite the current sources of energy. People associate electric cars with being eco-friendly and so as more and more people go electric the demand and pressure on companies to provide renewable energy sources from which people can charge their vehicles will undoubtedly rise. Envision want to be the provider of this clean energy. ‘The physical reality is there no matter what you do’ said Lei ‘What we need to do is lead the next step, to lead the response to climate change.’
All that’s left now is for the technology to catch up. If we want electric cars to really be a viable mode of transport for everyone in the future, they will have to get faster, easier to use, and cheaper. We’re not there yet. During Formula-E the cars must be switched midway as the batteries run out of power. DS Virgin’s top racer, Sam Bird, told me that when racing “you’ve got to drive quick but you can’t drive flat out because you have to preserve the energy. There’s more strategy. It’s more like a big game of chess.” This sounds like an interesting new dimension to motorsports, but it isn’t quite an advert for the electric car as an everyday vehicle. People don’t want to play chess while they drive, they just want to drive. However, there is hope. A lot of hope. In just the past four years the power of electric cars has increased by 25% and the energy stored in the battery by 92%. The technology in electric cars is advancing fast and by next year it looks very likely that racers will need only one car to complete the race. DS believe that an electric car with sufficient battery power to satisfy all road drivers is imminent. For this to work, they must be inexpensive too. The growth in transport, energy, and GDP is coming primarily from developing countries and so new vehicles must be cost-effective to be competitive in these countries. Already electric vehicles are being created for the Chinese market between 5-8 thousand dollars.
DS, however, is a luxury car brand. Technological advancement is not their only dream. Electric cars are soon to become a necessity, and, like every necessity, they can be glamourised and packaged to appeal to the wealthy. This is what DS Automobile’s aims to do. To make electric cars glamorous design objects and not just iPhones on wheels. Thierry Metroz, one of DS’s Designers said in the press conference on the eve of the race ‘We want to make electric cars with poetry and emotion’. DS’s latest release as promised has a beautiful hybrid version, the DS 7 E-Tense. The stunning four by four has a beautiful artisan interior, with elements inspired by luxury French watchmaking, crystal controls and pearl stitching throughout. DS’s glamorous hybrid is a far cry from the first lego-like electric cars released in the 80s and perhaps DS’s elegant designs are a more promising pathway to a clean and safe planet.
On the next morning after my return from Paris, I walk through London during rush hour. The roads are packed with the usual gas guzzling cars filling the atmosphere with a concoction that my London bred asthmatic lungs can hardly bare. I imagine a silent road of elegant electric vehicles and only hope that DS Automobiles vision of a utopian future comes sooner rather than later. If it starts with luxury electric four by fours and city centre races then let the races commence.
A French brand born in Paris, DS was officially founded on 1 June 2014. Its ambition is to embody French luxury know-how in its cars. Driven by its outstanding heritage and avant-garde spirit, DS perpetuates the values of innovation and distinction of the first DS, launched in 1955.
DS 7 CROSSBACK is the first of a new-generation of products. A range of six models are initially planned, with a new one launching every year going forward. Every new model will incorporate a version with electrification (larger models being a petrol-electric hybrid, smaller models being fully electric) that are expected to account for a third of sales by 2025.
DS Automobiles competes in Formula E – the electric city racing series to win and accelerate development of its electrification platforms.