“You could even have ro­bot ‘deer’ run­ning across the rac­ing line”

Top Gear (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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?

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