Cheap Thrills: Roboracing Is Coming Our Way, Fast

By: Bridget Clerkin July 5, 2017
A self-driving race car from the company Roborace zips along the streets of Paris. Self-driving races pit programmers rather than drivers against one another.
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In our age of booming technological innovation, the automotive world is changing at an especially rapid pace—124 MPH, to be exact.

That’s the speed the first self-driving racecar was clocked in while completing its fastest full lap to date at a German track in June.

The mechanical marvel is gaining traction on a course that seems destined to take it far beyond the capabilities of professional motorists.

But the model may have an even deeper impact on our future driving habits—or lack thereof.

On Your Mark...

Billed as the “racecar of the future,” the robocar was designed entirely without humans in mind, allowing it to have a low, sleek figure and a narrow spine no adult could conceivably fit under.

An aerodynamic tour de force, it looks exactly as futuristic as it is. And fittingly, it was designed by the same man who created the vehicles used in Tron: Legacy, among other forward-looking films.

The intended use for the car is also novel: roboracing.

Envisioned by company Roborace, which manufactured the vehicle, the competitions would pit the machines against one another—no drivers necessary.

Crews dedicated to the vehicles would provide their own programming for the cars, allowing the autos to react differently to the same scenarios.

Ten identical cars would be created for the league. The hardware would be exactly the same on each. Making it an actual race is the software going into the machinery.

Crews dedicated to the vehicles would provide their own programming for the cars, allowing the autos to react differently to the same scenarios—and mimicking the variations inevitably made by humans behind the wheel.

As the competitions wear on, the idea would be to keep tweaking the technology in order to build a more perfect racer. In this league, the software engineer is front and center, while drivers take a back seat.

The concept was already tested last winter, when two autonomous racecars squared off in Buenos Aires on a track used by Formula E, the 2-year-old electronic racing league that will host the roboraces once the prototypes are all built.

At the conclusion of the South American contest, both cars were smashed up, but it was seen as an overall win for the industry—and a way to determine what doesn’t work on the track.

In fact, the ability to shorten the learning curve of self-driving technology may be the league’s most important byproduct.

Get Set...

Formula E has already proved a hotbed of automotive innovation in its 2 years, providing a venue where designers and engineers can chase their wildest imaginations without fearing the practicalities of everyday roads and their potential repercussions.

When it comes to roboracing, the vehicles rely entirely on artificial intelligence, rather than remote controls, affording an even greater opportunity for engineers to learn about the cars—and the cars to learn about themselves.

Constituting that knowledge is information gleaned from a wide array of cameras and sensors on the machines. The cars are also connected to each other, in constant communication over invisible waves in order to avoid crashing.

The prototype that clocked record speeds in Germany alone includes 5 lidar sensors, 2 radar sensors, 18 ultrasonic sensors, 2 optical speed sensors, 6 AI cameras, and a satellite positioning system.

Information it garners is processed through a central computer that can perform 24 trillion operations per second, according to Roborace.

And with how fast it can travel, it will have to think quickly. The machine is fitted with four 300-kilowatt motors and a 540-kilowatt battery, which could take the car over 200 MPH.

Unfettered by regulations or the threat of death for test drivers, the cars can be pushed to the limits of speed, and offer a fast track to the development of future autonomous vehicles—even the slow ones made to move humans.


What’s in a race?

Cars zoom by in seemingly endless circles. Drivers make micro-moves over the course of several hours. Fans wait all day in the stands just to count down to the last lap. Vehicles win by fractions of a second, often imperceptible to the human eye.

There’s also the occasional but inevitable fiery accident. And while that scenario is grisly, it speaks to a broader allure of the sport: Driving is thrilling.

As we speed toward the future of robocar racing, let’s not forget that we’re cheering on something that’s empty inside.

Indeed, racing is dangerous, and any death the sport causes is undoubtedly tragic, but in that heartbreak lies the beauty of it all.

Drivers risk everything to pursue what they love; they put their lives on the line to stand up to fear, and move forward in spite of it. Their passion becomes them.

As we speed toward the future of robocar racing, let’s not forget that we’re cheering on something that’s empty inside.



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