Opinion: Robot motorsport misses the point

Opinion: Robot motorsport misses the point

Opinion: Robot motorsport misses the point

by July 13, 2016

Driverless cars. According to that most wise and learned of modern oracles, Wikipedia, the definition of what it terms an “autonomous car” is: “An autonomous car (driverless car, self-driving car, robotic car) is a vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment and navigating without human input.”

It’s the last three words in that definition that hit me in the face like the exhaust fumes from an electric vehicle never will – “Without human input!” (my exclamation mark, not Wiki’s).

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for car manufacturers spending untold billions on R&D to make our motoring lives a little easier and a whole lot safer. Without that development, we’d still be driving a three-wheeled wonder made by Carl Benz and powered by a simple single-cylinder, two-stroke engine capable of propelling the Motorwagen to a top speed of 11km/h.

Instead, just 130 years later, we are looking at a future where the driver is superfluous and the machine is everything.

Limousine driverI love driving. You love driving. That’s why you’ve bought this magazine. And I also like being driven, whether it’s my partner behind the wheel or a taxi driver or on the rare occasions I’ve been chauffeured by a proper chauffeur, you know the ones – black suits, impenetrable sunglasses, sleek, black, large German sedan.

The feeling that washes over you while someone else does the hard work of navigating traffic and the idiots in it can be relaxing and soothing (okay, I lied about liking being driven by a taxi driver; no one likes that). But what I can’t imagine is the seat behind the wheel empty, a pristine leather-clad vacuum devoid of all “human input” into the art and science of driving a car.

And that brings me neatly to the point of this rant. A few weeks ago, an enterprising individual by the name of Denis Sverdlov launched ROBORACE to an unsuspecting motorsport world. The idea is simple; to create a racing series where the grid of 20 cars is made up entirely of “driverless cars”. Sounds far-fetched but ROBORACE is due to start this year as a support category for the FIA’s all-electric Formula E Championship.

Roborace carThe car itself is wild. It looks like it belongs in space. Or on Mars. Or on the set of a Hollywood science-fiction epic, which isn’t that surprising since the man who penned the ROBORACE car is Daniel Simon, the man behind the out-of-this-world ‘light cycles’ from the sci-fi blockbuster Tron: Legacy.

Technical details are scant but what we do know is that this isn’t some radio-controlled micro racer. It weighs in at a hefty 1000kg or so and will be similar in size to a modern open-wheel race car with a claimed top speed in excess of 300km/h. Controlling it will be an array of sensors that will calibrate everything from ideal cornering speeds to proximity of other ROBORACE cars.

“We passionately believe that, in the future, all of the world’s vehicles will be assisted by AI (Artificial Intelligence) and powered by electricity, thus improving the environment and road safety,” said Sverdlov when launching the car last week. “ROBORACE is a celebration of revolutionary technology and innovation that humanity has achieved in that area so far. It’s a global platform to show that robotic technologies and AI can co-exist with us in real life.”

Mercedes formula 1 carBut, as wild as ROBORACE is on the surface, it misses a crucial point. Motorsport, all sport really, is about human endeavour. It’s the humanity of its participants that make for thrilling contests.

The act of a driver, a human no less, on the absolute limits of the laws of science is what makes motorsport a gladiatorial contest where only the best survive. Take away that human element and we are left to admire what? An algorithm consisting of a sequence of zeroes and ones in a particular order?

Give me Ayrton Senna, give me Fernando Alonso, give me Jim Clark, Jack Brabham, Daniel Ricciardo or Sebastian Vettel. But you can keep ROBORACE (and Lewis Hamilton!).