Just when we are trying to reckon with the concept of driverless cars, some envision those vehicles competing on a race track. Kinetik, a London investment fund headed by Russian entrepreneur Denis Sverdlov, has released a rendering of a Formula One racecar having one glaring omission — a driver’s cockpit.
Automotive News reports that Sverdlov perceives a competition pitting racecars against one another at near-200 mile per hour speeds. In a series he calls Roborace, cars are expected hurl themselves down straits and around curves in a spectacle akin to life-sized slot cars.
But they won’t have slots. Autonomous systems driven by sophisticated computer software will be in control. At least it’s hoped that there will be control. Without a human at the wheel, programmers could tinker freely with their software and crash with impunity. Sverdlov believes this will push the limits of the technology, bringing driverless cars to the public sooner.
At a conference sponsored by chipmaker Nvidia Corporation, he said, referring to driverless racecars, “Our heroes are not drivers, our heroes are engineers.”
To design a prototype, Sverdlov has enlisted Daniel Simon, a former Volkswagen engineer who designed the dueling “light cycles” for Disney’s 2010 remake of the sci-fi classic Tron.
Many experts are skeptical of the Roborace plan, mainly because of the proposed high speeds. Whereas human drivers can see about 300 meters down the track, even Google’s lidar “vision” struggles at around 200 meters. According to Josh Hartung, an Oregon startup developing software for autonomous cars, “There’s some skepticism for sure, and it’s warranted.” He added, “Some of the goals, especially in terms of speed, far outpace the capabilities of today’s sensing. But that’s the great thing about racing, right? It pushes limits.”
Each team on the track would have identical hardware, including cameras, lidar, and vehicle-to-vehicle communications. Teams could tweak software algorithms to gain speed advantage over other competitors. Svedlov believes that when spectators see how “robot-driven” cars behave in these extreme conditions, it will be easier to envision self-driving cars on public roads.
Again, there are skeptics. Vincent Laurense a doctoral Student at Standford University studying the technology cautions, “If it’s a demonstration of great control, it [racing] could be a good thing. If it’s like bumper cars, I could see it being a negative.”
Some auto manufacturers seem to agree that driverless racing is the next research and development frontier. Audi has been working on autonomous racecars since 2010, when it sent a driverless Audi TT up the Pike’s Peak hill climb in 27 minutes.
Some grassroots Silicon Valley racers are planning a day at a Sacramento track, Thunderhill Raceway Park next month, billed as “The First Autonomous Track Day.” It is being organized by Joshua Schachter, a racing fan who once sold his web browsing company to Yahoo.
Schachter has plenty of eager participants ready to show off their autonomous systems. They all seem to be in agreement that the focus on robotic cars in race environments will advance the development and acceptance of the technology.
As I have said before, each passing day brings more credence to the driverless concept. What seemed preposterous just a few years ago now seems inevitable. If huge dollar investment, automaker involvement and the attention of endless technology startups are indicators, it won’t be long before we get a chance to not drive one!
Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.