Driverless racing: A different kind of competition?
Roborace is a Formula E initiative in which autonomous cars compete with each other. This raises the obvious question: Up to what point is a driver necessary in order to put on a good show? Let’s find out.
At first glance, it is a racing car with an electric motor, capable of reaching 200 kilometres per hour. But it lacks a “small” detail: the driver. It is a Robocar, the first autonomous racing car, developed by Roborace. This company, in which technology, car manufacture and artificial intelligence converge, is a project promoted by the International Federation of Automobiles (FIA) and Formula E. They aim to establish the first driverless car races. This futuristic racing car was designed by Daniel Simon, known for his work in Hollywood, particularly in the film Tron: Legacy. The design is based on aerodynamics, with a central part which houses the motors and wheel axes. Made of carbon fibre, it is much lighter than those of Formula E and Formula 1.
At the last Formula E race at the old Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, it managed to complete the two and a half kilometre circuit in just 1 minute and 40 seconds; 30 seconds less than the fastest lap by a single-seater with driver.
It was a turning point in this project because it confirmed its viability. The previous attempts were not so fortunate. In the Buenos Aires circuit, a dog managed to slip past security and got onto the track. One of the racing cars decided to avoid it, colliding with another and ending the race. Months after the race in Berlin, the Robocars debuted in Times Square in New York in front of thousands of people. “It is a city very much in need of autonomous driving,” said the CEO of Roborace to the media: “Through this competition, we can show everyone that it is possible and close to becoming a reality.”
“Through this competition, we can show everyone that it is possible and close to becoming a reality”.
Denis Sverdlov, CEO of Roborace
The company has also developed DevBots, autonomous vehicles that include a cabin from which an engineer can control the car’s parameters. Roborace proposes a complementary competition to Formula E (taking place on the same dates and at the same circuits) with ten teams, each with two cars. The races last an hour, during which these self-driving and electric cars must prove that they have the most cutting edge artificial intelligence. In other words: it is not the fastest racing car that wins, but rather the smartest.
New driving algorithms are used in each race (in the same way that a driver’s strategies are not revealed beforehand) and are based on tried and tested Formula E methods. As a company spokesperson said at the Berlin circuit after the impressive performance of the Robocars, “This will significantly accelerate innovation in autonomous driving for series-production cars.”
A complement for Formula E and Formula 1?
“Today, we initiate a new chapter in the history of motor racing.” This solemn statement was made by James Barclay, Racing Director and Panasonic Jaguar Formula E Racing Team Director, during the event at Berlin. He did not seem concerned that the rise of the Robocars could leave him without a job. “Driving a Formula E car requires the same skill and concentration as a Formula 1 car. The spectators continue to appreciate that.”
Furthermore, Roborace is an initiative that has actually come from the Formula E organisation, which proposes it as a technology and leisure showcase, before the races. For the time being, there is growing acceptance of the manned electric single-seaters, which have twelve races, nearly half the number of Formula 1 races. “We are aware that we do not yet have such a large number of followers or generate the excitement created by the star competition,” admits Barclay. “But it’s a matter of time. Each year the number of spectators at the racing events increases and we have more media exposure. It is the same with road-going electric cars. They used to be seen as a rarity, but today they are accepted as something normal and are clearly the future of mobility. That being the case, Formula E is the future of the competition. And Roborace is the future of autonomous driving.”