Motorsport's driverless future
Private Life and Mobility
Racing drives public acceptance and adoption technology – just like it did with Formula E – but will it work for driverless tech too?
Whether you love, hate or are otherwise ambivalent to motorsport – you can't deny its influence. Competitive racing is a global powerhouse, and its impact on the technology we go on to use in our day-to-day lives is paramount to progress. But could that be the case for driverless technology too? Or is the idea of racing cars without racing drivers a little too 'far out', or even too 'safe' to be exciting?
To know for sure, we could look to a recent example of progressive, contemporary tech being used in a traditional racing format: Formula E.
Electric to driverless…a race too far?
When you think of motorsport, chances are you think of Formula One first. Well, the fifth series of Formula E, the all-electric answer to Formula One, has recently come to an end. It was originally conceived to show the world that electric vehicles were not only a sensible next step in the racing world – in terms of reducing emissions and the overall environmental impact – but also a completely viable and life-integrable choice for the rest of the world too.
When it was first conceptualised in 2011, the ABB FIA Formula E Championship was met with scepticism and even criticism. It was quickly dismissed as a gimmick by the racing community. But, since its first series in 2014, it's gone from strength-to-strength, attracting fans in both the public, and in big automotive brands – a clear indication of its growing global reputation and commercial viability.
It's been an interesting human experiment too, with many Formula One racing drivers, including Lucas di Grassi switching to all-electric for their racing and, some cases, personal use. It's helped electric vehicles take off, in every conceivable way
The electric tech transfer
The message of sustainability is, of course, a big public winner – and a very important in the grander scheme, as is the use of big driving names to keep engagement high. But there are other interesting elements at play, such as the technology, and the off-circuit race between brands to innovate.
According to Wired:
"Formula E is meant to utilise racing—long a rolling laboratory for automotive development, yielding advancements like antilock brakes, traction control, and dual-clutch transmissions—to help EV manufacturers and suppliers like BMW, Nissan, Audi, Panasonic, Mahindra, and Jaguar move their battery-powered products forward. Not just to showcase what electrics can do, but to make them better."
These developments have led to numerous 'technology transfers', meaning brands developing safer, more powerful and longer-lasting electric vehicles, suitable for both the racing circuit, and the street, using the same technology.
Electric racing won't be stopping with Formula E, either. This July, at the legendary Goodwood Festival of Speed, Extreme E saw its world premier – a fully electric SUV race complete with special off-road Continental tires. This is a partnership, and a style of racing, that is set to really take off in the coming years. At least that's what the founder and CEO of Formula E, Alejandro Agag, believes:
“I’ve always been passionate about progressing electric vehicle technology and the impact that clean mobility solutions can have on the efforts to halt global climate change. I strongly believe that Extreme E can help make the world more sustainable faster, and we have a dream team to make this ambition a reality. Welcoming Continental Tires as a founding partner - and CBMM as niobium supplier - is a huge boost to Extreme E and shows the strong commercial appetite for this sustainable sport and entertainment concept.”.
There's no question that Formula E has helped drive both the electric technology itself, the 'big brand influence', and the publics' trust in it. But could the same thing be replicated with driverless tech too?
Try a little Roborace
As Goodwood festival played host to Extreme E, Roborace's DevBot 2.0 set its first official timed lap during the same event – completing the 1.16-mile course in 66.96 seconds, reaching top speeds of 100 miles/hour. It was the first time an official autonomous lap had been timed, making both motorsport and technology history.
July 2019 was a big month for autonomous racing. A few weeks after its jaw-dropping inaugural lap, the first autonomous race took place on the iconic Monteblanco race track. But some aficionados pointed out that, without a driver to root for, there wouldn't be much of a public draw.
Bryn Balcombe, Roborace's Chief Strategy Officer, still believes that autonomous racing will find its place in the racing world, with the lack of a driver compensated for in new and exciting ways.
"Motorsport has lots of different categories of racing, that all set different challenges, so be it Formula 1, be it Formula E or the World Endurance Championships, the tasks are all very different, and have different appeals. It has always created a diversity of competitions to drive technology in a particular way. What we're doing at Roborace is focusing on those new formats of competition, and those technology-driving challenges. We will still race on racetracks, but we will also have competitions in rural roads, on city streets and in other 'closed course' environments. After all, 'closed course' will bring full autonomy to life quickly, with new rules and regulations on the road."
'Trust' is the word
Gaining public trust is essential for life-critical technology's market feasibility. In the case of electric vehicles, it was proving that the technology was capable of handling the same level of use as its fossil-fuel powered equivalent. In the case of autonomous ones, it's proving that you don't need a human at the wheel to be both safe and effective.
Much like Formula E, autonomous racing is bound to attract its sceptics, especially in its earliest phases. But, as the technology improves and public exposure to its capability increases, there's every chance it will soon gain the trust required to go mainstream.
"You have to experience the technology. We often talk about motors, but when you see two cars racing each other and one car crashes into another one, the public engage with it, and experience it. We want them to engage with the reasons why. That is what we should be doing with autonomous motorsport - giving the public that connection so they can ask: 'why did the software do that? That is unacceptable behaviour, I wouldn't want to see that on the roads'."
In theory, if the technology can be proven to be safe whilst still managing to be edgy and exciting for the motorsport punter it could win public favour faster. After all, racing is still the most dangerous way to drive – a way of testing the fullest capabilities of the tech without business bias.
"This isn't a marketing environment. The track is a place where performance is objectively measured, and communicating the results to the public is essential. If you're going to build trust in the technology, you're going to have to be able to showcase: where is the technology now, what is it capable of and what are its limitations?"
Well, if it worked for electric, it could well work for autonomous. Only we'll be cheering on the engineers and programmers as the 'drivers', rather than the people who sit behind the wheel. Maybe, as this new way to race takes shape, we can answer the question: do we ultimately root for the cars, or the humans in control of them?
Perhaps we will be seeing a Formula AD in years to come. Keep your eyes on the grid.
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