Bentley CEO: “The future of motorsports is electric and autonomous”
Responsible for the world’s most powerful sports car, Volkswagen manager Wolfgang Dürheimer’s drivers have broken dozens of records and secured countless victories. Yet if he is to be believed, the sports car of tomorrow won’t have a combustion engine or a person behind the wheel.
No one can deny that Wolfgang Dürheimer lives and breathes driving. It wasn’t for no reason that the engineer started-off in charge of BMW's motorcycle division, before going on to lead development at Porsche. Most recently, as president and CEO of Bentley and Bugatti, he built the most luxury cars in the VW Group, as well as the fastest and most powerful sports car in the world. Yet, despite his passion for engine power and the feeling of mastering it, Dürheimer is also convinced that the future of mobility belongs to electric and automated driving - "at least to a large extent". As Dürheimer is also responsible for the VW group’s motorsports, he sees the race track as a literal acceleration lane for these new technologies.
"No matter how far you go back in the history of the automobile, motorsports have always been a driving force for development," explains Dürheimer, providing two key reasons. Firstly, race tracks have long served as a perfect test run for engineers, a place where new technologies could be trialed under the toughest conditions and be prepared for everyday use. And secondly, because the car races were and still are nothing more than huge advertising events, where manufacturers can convince their customers of the quality of their products. "This has always been the case, whether for the Grand Prix races in the early days of the automobile, Formula 1 or nowadays in Formula E," says Dürheimer. He wants to continue this trend with automated driving.
In his opinion, at the very least, the motorsports run by car producers have a social responsibility: “We can’t just consume petrol and burn rubber, we also have to advance and test new technologies, and do something when it comes to their acceptance," says the motorsports manager. "And this is where, after electric driving, automated driving is the next big topic."
Dürheimer is convinced that the industry should also use its resources in motorsports to test automated driving and make it safer. “And nothing is more suited than a race track,” says Dürheimer: Both the situation and the environment are highly controllable. There are safety barriers and run-off areas, and should something happen, the entire cavalry would be ready to minimize damage: “This is simply not the case with city traffic or on motorways.”
Virtual pedestrians on the race track?
Aware that autonomous driving is about more than maneuvering along a predefined route as fast and safely as possible, Dürheimer doesn’t want to keep the risks of everyday life away from racing cars. "What speaks against putting virtual pedestrians onto the course or making other unexpected moving obstacles appear?" This could also create an element of suspense that a series without human drivers might initially lack. Dürheimer hopes that if people see that autonomous racing cars can pass such tests, they will accept and adopt the technology more quickly in real life. If it were up to him, this "proof of concept" should happen sooner than others believe: "In just two years from now, such a robocar could at least be doing a lap of honor at Le Mans or the 24-hours Nürburgring," hopes the motorsports manager.
Should Roborace later become its own series, it will no longer have much in common with traditional motorsports. While technology parks, test drives and demonstrations will probably still attract spectators to the track, Dürheimer is convinced that the races are likely to be followed digitally most of the time. The race cars will look so unconventional that the lack of steering wheel, pedals and driver's seat will be immediately visible. And whereas so far, it has always been the driver that was the hero, it will now be the teams and their programmers in the foreground. "That is not to say there won’t still be heroes, champions and losers in Roborace. And above all, there will be one big winner," says Dürheimer: "A proven and accepted technology."
With new racing cars, new rules, new teams and new heroes, Dürheimer’s vision has very little to do with what we currently understand by auto racing. This is why he’s already developed a new term for it: “We are no longer talking about motorsports where people are directly connected to the steering wheel. Instead, it’s all about the start of the age of motor racing.”