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The Charging Point

Your one-stop destination for electric and hybrid cars

Birdseye view of an electric motor racing car

Roborace: The Rise of the Machines

On Tuesday 30 May 1911, the Indianapolis 500-mile race was staged for the very first time. It was won by a Pennsylvania-born engineer named Ray Harroun, who had caused great controversy beforehand by fitting his car with a rear-view mirror. Other drivers were accompanied by an on-board mechanic who could glance backwards when required, but the forward-thinking Harroun wanted to save weight and so fitted the mirror instead. As well as the win, Harroun could also claim the first recorded use of a feature that we now consider standard.

Motor racing has always led the way in new developments for regular cars. From Harroun's rear-view mirror to the use of carbon fibre in Formula 1 and the pioneering of electric power in Formula E, it is a fantastic laboratory. Fierce competition breeds rapid development, which can then be passed on to the cars we drive on the road - or, as the case may eventually be, the cars we don't drive.

Autonomous vehicles are of significant interest right now. Major car manufacturers are actively exploring the technology, while logistics and mass-transit companies are among those looking to exploit the potential of driverless transport.

So, what do you get if you combine the shift towards autonomous vehicles with motor racing's ability to speed up development? The answer is Roborace, a championship that plans to embrace the automotive future and do away with drivers.

The concept is pretty simple, even if the technology required to make it happen is extremely complex. Roborace will see autonomous electric-powered vehicles compete in their own races at Formula E circuits, effectively providing a warm-up act for the headlining all-electric series.



It is the brainchild of Russian entrepreneur Denis Sverdlov, who is also CEO of electric vehicle designer and manufacturer Arrival. Initially, Sverdlov wanted to introduce an autonomous overtaking mode to Formula E; sensibly, the focus soon shifted to fully-driverless cars. Lucas di Grassi, the reigning Formula E champion and the most switched-on racing driver you are likely to meet, has joined Roborace as its CEO.

Though the series was first revealed in November 2015, there is still uncertainty surrounding exactly when it will debut and what to expect. The initial plan was for Roborace to be running during the 2017-18 Formula E season, but that deadline was missed without anything in the way of an update. It is fair to suggest that we are between three and five years from seeing it on-track.

The initial announcement spoke of 10 teams, each running two cars in one-hour races, but whether it will really be as simple as that remains to be seen. More recent reports have talked of two sets of cars running in opposite directions and meeting at a central point on the circuit. It sounds wild, but that is the sort of disruptive approach required for such a unique series.

From an operational standpoint, the plan is for Roborace to provide the vehicles - known as Robocars - as well as basic artificial intelligence software. Teams will develop this AI as they see fit, effectively creating their own "drivers" to compete in the championship. The idea goes that by opening up the AI, each entrant would develop its own on-track style.

The cars will navigate using a complex system of ultrasonic sensors, radar, cameras and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). There will be no human steering them from a control room; once they're loose on the circuit, the Robocars will be on their own.

A two-car race between early "devbots", staged at a Formula E event in Argentina last year, demonstrated some of the pros and cons associated with the technology. On a positive note, one of the devbots completed the course and reached a top speed of 116mph. It also managed to avoid a stray dog that ran on to the circuit, a very promising sign for those who hope to see autonomous vehicles on our streets.

The other devbot was less successful, however, and crashed after taking a corner too quickly. This was put down to a bug in its code - something that can be corrected to prevent a repeat - but it was an embarrassing moment all the same.

When it comes to developing the technology, incidents like this are what Roborace is about. It is inevitable that there will be crashes in the series, and the data collected can be used to develop road-based autonomous vehicles.

And, with growing automotive interest in autonomous technology, we could even see manufacturers enter the series at some stage. Formula E has attracted the likes of Audi, Renault and Jaguar to compete for the same reason: electric racing is relevant to the new technologies they are developing for the road.

Image of a black and green electric motor racing car with detailed labelling of the various components


The fact that the series can accelerate development is clear enough. But will it appeal to fans?

There is certainly a sense of curiosity surrounding the first race, but beyond this it will be interesting to see how Roborace keeps viewers interested. Racing may be a highly technological sport, but it's still very much about the people involved. Fans cheer for drivers in far greater numbers than they do teams or manufacturers, so what will they make of a series where the star on-track is a robot?

What's more, traditional motorsport fans are arguably the group least likely to be sold on autonomous vehicles. There is scepticism about the series, while those from a non-racing perspective are more open-minded to the concept. Could attracting this new supporter base be part of Roborace's game plan?

Perhaps it will be a case of shining a light on the software engineers who develop the AI or the teams who work on the Robocars. Perhaps using a more extreme format will draw attention. Or perhaps they really do hope to make the cars the stars.

This remains one of the biggest questions to be answered by Roborace. From a tech standpoint it is a fascinating project that has the potential to tap into the zeitgeist of the automotive industry. But can any sport survive without human protagonists?