People love to race things—be it their fellow humans, machines, or beasts. So, it was probably inevitable that autonomous cars would eventually find their way into competition. It was announced earlier this week that Formula E, the year-old FIA racing series designed exclusively for fully electric vehicles, intends to launch a new global race series for driverless electric cars.
Roboraces will be part of the Formula E series and will take place prior to each of those races, using the same circuits in cities around the world. The series will consist of 10 teams that will each field two driverless cars and compete in one-hour races over a full championship season.
The new Roborace series “will provide a competitive platform for the autonomous driving solutions that are now being developed by many large industrial automotive and technology players as well as top tech universities,” Formula E and its partner Kinetic said in a statement. This means we could see racing teams fielded by automakers and tech companies along with academic research powerhouses like Stanford and Carnegie Mellon.
This actually isn’t the first robo-car competition. That would be the DARPA Challenge, but that was more about which vehicles would actually finish the race, let alone win. Most of the contestants moved in robotic herky-jerky fashion along a defined path through the California/Nevada desert or through mock deserted streets, not around a track.
I recall seeing a mini DARPA Challenge course at CES 2008—and I got bored watching it in less than five minutes. (I’m far from the only one who is less than enthusiastic about the prospects of automated racing). While having autonomous cars speed around a track will be much different than the DARPA Challenge, the organizers will need to do more to make Roboraces more appealing.
According to the event organizers, one of the teams will be “organized as a crowd-sourced community team for enthusiastic software and technology experts all over the world” and “all the teams will have the same cars … and will compete using real-time computing algorithms and AI technologies. While this may be exciting for a few geeks, it probably won’t translate to the mainstream motorsports crowd. I can think of at least a couple of ways to make it more interesting.
With car security on the minds of many people and researchers and other stakeholders working to solve the problem, why not allow teams to hack each other’s cars? In the spirit of open source, the teams could learn from each other’s competitive cyber-security exploits while at the same time benefiting the driving public.
Or how about a cross between auto racing and Robot Wars, the popular early 2000s TV show and now live-action event in which a fierce battle was waged, but no humans were harmed. This way, the cars could battle each other in ways other than speed, kind of like the famous chariot race scene from the movie Ben Hur, but for modern times and without the human or equine casualties.
Now that might be something to watch—and could likely attract NASCAR-size attention. What do you think would make autonomous car racing more exciting?