Could AI replace racing drivers?

Does the future of motor racing include drivers? We take a look at the Roborace Robocar.
An image of the Roborace Robocar
Is this the future of motor racing? © Roborace/Daniel Simon
By Phil Barker

When it comes to thrills, not a lot can beat a human being thrashing a racing car to the absolute limit and beyond (Red Bull Air Race aside), which is why motor racing has excited fans for over a century.

In a bid to push the limits even higher, however, artificial intelligence (AI) racing cars are being put through their paces, and they remove the human element altogether. Could it make for even better racing? Or will the Grand Prix become entirely predictable as a result?

DevBot is a driverless electric prototype made by London-based Kinetik for the upcoming Roborace championship, and the company has been testing its driverless cars at Formula E circuits around the world since August last year.

© Roborace

Initial versions of Kinetik’s racer look suspiciously similar to more traditional, human-driven Le Mans-series prototypes, and that’s because the electric and autonomous components, including LiDAR and other sensors – just like an autonomous road car – have been packaged within a regular Ginetta LMP3 chassis.

That means there’s still a cockpit, a driver’s seat and a steering wheel, and the DevBot can indeed be driven by a human, but with the aim of developing artificial intelligence, it can also drive and race all on its own. This is just a test mule for Kinetik, and the final championship cars will look like nothing we’ve ever seen, at least on a real racing circuit.

A photo of the Roborace DevBot
The DevBot in action © Roborace

Since the introduction of DevBot, Roborace has released images of the jaw-dropping Robocar, and this time there’s nowhere for a driver to sit and styling that’s suitably out of this world. Think of a Scalextric, Tron bike and missile hybrid (Robocar was actually styled by Daniel Simon, who has previously worked on Hollywood blockbusters including Tron: Legacy and Oblivion) and you’re not far off; it certainly helps to make current racing cars look pedestrian.

Robocar is almost good to go, as well, as most of the components and AI currently being extensively tested in the DevBot chassis will simply be shifted over to the Robocar later this year.

Cynical about whether the robotic element will remove the spills and thrills of motor racing? After all, human error is a key part in any exciting battle on the circuit, and we’re unlikely to see artificial intelligence crack under pressure – at least more than once.

An image of the Roborace Robocar
Is it a rocket, a UFO or a car? © Roborace

The benefits for viewers could be seen in faster speeds, with cars able to withstand bigger G-forces and crashes. Designers will also have a blank sheet, being able to create smaller, lighter and more efficient cars without the need for cockpits, specific crash structures or other driver-focussed features.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be crashes, though, and we’ve already seen the first two Roboracers clash at the Buenos Aires Formula ePrix earlier this year, with the second car taking action to avoid a dog on the track and ending up in the barriers as a result. 

© Roborace

Excitement for motor racing fans isn’t the only reason for the existence of Roborace, however, and according to Denis Sverdlov, Founder of Kinetik and Roborace, there is another reason for developing the autonomous racers:

“We passionately believe that, in the future, all of the world’s vehicles will be assisted by AI and powered by electricity, thus improving the environment and road safety. Roborace is a celebration of revolutionary technology and innovation that humanity has achieved in that area so far. It’s a global platform to show that robotic technologies and AI can co-exist with us in real life. Thus, anyone who is at the edge of this transformation now has a platform to show the advantages of their driverless solutions and this shall push the development of the technology.”

In other words, computers learning to speed up race cars will eventually improve your morning commute too. If that’s not a reason to celebrate the incoming singularity, we don’t know what is.

Interested in watching a driverless racing car in action? Roborace’s DevBot will be running again in Mexico City on April 1, supporting the FIA Formula E Mexico City ePrix.

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