“You could even have robot ‘deer’ running across the racing line”
F1 is back for 2017 and it has all the ingredients of a fantastic season. An angry Lewis Hamilton eager to reclaim “his” title, a competitive Ferrari and new cars designed to close up the feld. On paper, I should be excited, but the truth is, I’m steeling myself for yet another snoozefest of a season.
As a racing fan, I could turn my attention to Moto GP or some form of rallying, but my eye’s been caught by driverless racing. A series known as Roborace is promising to deliver autonomous racing cars that slug it out in a driverless racing competition. That’s right, machine vs machine – with no humans getting in the way.
The latest prototype car looks fantastic. I’d go as far as saying that although the lack of a cockpit is visually jarring, it’s among the most beautiful automotive creations I’ve ever seen. It’s also up there with the cleverest. These things are teeming with sensors – radar, lidar, ultrasonics, accelerometers and cameras – designed to recognise the track, other racers and fgure out its own movements.
The goal is to have up to 20 autonomous Robocars waging driverless war on circuits around the globe, with races being the support act to Formula E races. Many petrolheads will, of course, call me an idiot. If you’re in this camp, you’ll be pleased to know that both my esteemed colleagues on TopGear television have expressed this sentiment, but I think Roborace has huge potential.
Without humans getting in the way, the cars will be able to travel faster, take greater risks, and engage in potentially more exciting racing. Just imagine: circuits that no longer feature silly chicanes that slow down drivers for their own safety. You could rip up the rulebook and allow cars to make multiple moves while defending a position. Or giant loop-theloops on track. You could even introduce random obstacles, such as robot “deer” running across the racing line, or weapons.
And look, if you really want humans involved somehow, then why not force teams to strap their best engineer to the body of their car with a MacBook and ask them to make coding adjustments during a race – literally on the fy.
That last one’s a bit of a stretch, but let’s face facts – F1 drivers may as well be hangers-on anyway. It isn’t about Fernando vs Lewis, or Verstappen vs Vettel. It’s rarely even about teammate vs teammate, as the teams are usually too scared to let their own drivers race. It’s difcult even, to admire individual driver skill as they’re usually either nursing their cars home, or driving according to instructions from their engineers.
Even if Roboracing is terrible, it probably won’t be any worse than F1 is currently. Plus, it will have the added beneft of improving driverless car technology for road-going cars. One of the purposes of the series is for engineers to gather data of how autonomous cars behave on the limit, with all manner of chaos kicking of around them. The sooner we let driverless cars of the leash in a safe environment, the safer we’ll be when the tech becomes mainstream.
Of course, I’m not proposing we consign F1 to the scrapheap. It’s still a great spectacle. Race starts are a personal highlight, as is the glorious mid-race period after the frst pit stop and before the fnal 10 laps, where I can have a nap.
And yes, drivers still have a huge part to play in motorsport. Imagine if the likes of Senna, Hamilton and Schumacher never got the chance to ply their trade – the world would be a worse place. But I for one want to think we should give the robots a chance, too. Gorgeous 200mph cars doing no-holds-barred track battle? Through loops? While dodging kamikaze robotic deer? Surely we all want to see that happen?