Autonomous series is getting closer. Can it improve track – and road – driving?
This is the Roborace car. It’s now a real driverless electric thing, a working prototype. Roborace will be a battle of algorithms not of drivers. Identical cars will run different software from the rival teams.
The series is getting closer. During this season’s Formula E weekends, Devbot (pic ten, above) has also been doing laps, and is the development vehicle for the systems, which has a cockpit for a human driver to oversee things.
So what does that mean for real drivers? TopGear.com spoke to Formula E racer Lucas di Grassi (pic 11) – currently second in the flesh-and-blood championship. Turns out he’s a fan of the autonomous racing idea.
“Our Le Mans car was very assisted. [He did four seasons in the Audi R18 and won two WEC races.] It helped us brake, it had steering assist, it turned you into a corner. Formula One cars are also so high tech that real drivers like Alonso complain about it. Roborace isn’t trying to replace motorsport but augment it. So human motorsport could become more human.”
Good for race fans as well as race drivers, then. He has more to say for it though. “It will improve autonomous road driving.” I put it to him I have doubts about that. Road driving is a task of huge variety but comparatively low precision while racing is a task of lower variety but extreme precision and speed.
“No,” di Grassi says, “Roborace will be a complex task when all those cars are on the track at once. Besides, you could send out a robo-dog onto the track. Roborace can test cars and tyres and situations to the limit with no peril to a human driver.”
The shabby, butt-naked Devbot has a space for a human driver though. He goes round the track first to check the car’s mechanical and electric systems are in order. Then Devbot drives itself on a slow data-acquisition lap, sensing the boundaries of the track and figuring out a racing line. Finally the driver switches to AI mode, and walks away.
At which point the thing hurtles off alone. Its lap times are now within eight per cent of a human driver.
Devbot isn’t all Roborace has shown at the Formula E weekends. The prototype fully driverless car is there too. It was imagined from pure nothingness by futurologist and sci-fi movie car designer Daniel Simon.
It’s not just a thing of smooth, audacious beauty and fearsome aero efficiency. It packs a borderline-fantastical spec sheet, which we’ve simply copy-pasted wholesale because it kinda defies comment.
Roboracer “weighs 975kg and has four motors of 300kW each, a 540kW battery, is predominantly made of carbon fibre and will be capable of speeds over 320kph [200mph]. The car uses a number of technologies to ‘drive’ itself including five lidars, two radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, two optical speed sensors, six AI cameras, GNSS positioning and is powered by Nvidia’s Drive PX2 brain, capable of up to 24 trillion AI operations per second.”
Which all sounds ridiculously high-end, but as it’ll be built as a standard machine, the teams won’t be able to spend money developing the hardware or aero. That actually makes it cheaper than most of today’s high-profile race cars, say the series organisers. The teams’ effort will be entirely spent on simulation and brainpower on the autonomous-drive programming.
Doubtless some of those algorithms will be good at sheer track speed, others at strategy, others at overtaking or defending among traffic. Or indeed at avoiding stray robo-dogs. Should be fascinating racing.