Want to fight global warming? Watch some car racing this weekend

All charged up.
All charged up.
Image: Formula E Holdings
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Here’s the most important thing you can do this weekend: Turn on the television.

Formula E, a new motor racing championship, begins in Beijing tomorrow. The E stands for electric. As in electric cars. And there’s a lot riding on its success.

The money put in by sponsors is one thing. The investment by the participating teams is another, as are the jobs that have been created as a result. But if the new championship is a success, the most important outcome will not be profits for firms or continued employment for drivers, but the very future of private mobility.

The thinking goes something like this: Motor races in the late 19th and early 20th centuries drove some of the most major advancements in automotive technology. Developments by Peugeot in the 1910s had big effects on engine design. Later, things like fuel injection, commonplace in modern cars, were a direct result of innovations on the race track, says John Heitmann, president of the Society of Automotive Historians and a professor at the University of Dayton. Heitmann sees a similar revolution if electric car racing takes off. “There’s inordinate promise for technology transfer to go from racing to production,” he says.

The question of sustainability has been dogging motor sports for years. Even as Formula 1 has grown into a global behemoth, it has tried to reduce its environmental impact by changing engines to be more efficient. But that is incremental change. Formula E presents the chance to rethink engines altogether, and to create a market for innovation in electric cars and batteries.

“Motor sport has been losing a bit of its relevance. So this was a way to come back to where the mainstream is and to bring relevance to motor sport and do something useful for society,” says Alejandro Agag, a former Formula 1 man who owns the rights to Formula E and runs the company handling and promoting the championship.

Agag and his team have faced criticism along the way. Purists complain that the cars are too silent (hear for yourself in the video above), and that audience engagement tactics such as giving an extra power boost to the driver who receives the most tweets—perhaps materially altering the outcome of the race—are too gimmicky. But Agag argues that such innovations are necessary for a sport created in the 21st century. “It’s a designed media strategy consistent with the way media works in the modern world,” he says.