James Allen: motorsport’s leaders grapple with existential questions
Drone battles, flying cars and autonomous vehicles; are these the future of motorsport?
Regular readers will know that I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of our sport and the industry around it. I’ve always cared passionately about motor racing and thrill to the primitive rumble of a 1970s V8-powered Canam car.
But I’m also fascinated by where it’s all heading and how motorsport interacts with the fastevolving technology agenda.
So it was very interesting to attend a panel discussion at the recent Motorsport Leaders Business Forum in London asking the question, “If autonomous cars are the future, will anyone care about racing?”
Racing cars have evolved a lot since the days of Moss and Fangio, but today the rate of change of technology in the world is exponentially faster. Things like ABS and traction control were on Nigel Mansell’s car in 1992, but were banned soon after as they didn’t help the racing. So in some respects technology has evolved ahead of what’s going on with F1 cars. Autonomous technology appears to be another example in the same vein.
All the world’s car makers are working on autonomous technology and at the same time we see a steep decline in young people taking up driving licences, while new car sales were down 20 per cent in the UK in September. All three of these things are negative to the prospects of motorsport.
Balancing out what technologies motorsport should be embracing, while keeping out those that would harm the sporting competition is a big challenge for rule makers. Keeping the emphasis on showcasing the skills of the drivers is also paramount. But if people don’t drive cars any more, will they still get a thrill out of seeing Lewis Hamilton or Max Verstappen’s car control?
A Nielsen survey conducted for the Leaders event noted that 77 per cent of motorsport fans surveyed said technology should be centrally involved in motorsport.
One series that is at the vanguard of next-gen motorsports as technological entertainment is Roborace, which this year demonstrated a driverless car at Goodwood. Impressive as it was, it didn’t stir people’s passions and they are now evolving the series concept to be machine plus human – as team mates, like at Le Mans. This helps prove the autonomous technology and demonstrate it. The idea would be to show that automated cars can be exciting. Accidents in these racing situations are more acceptable than on the roads. They are also experimenting with drone battles taking place in the skies above the racing.
Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag was clear in his view that the human will be central to motorsport for years to come. “I’m sure 95 per cent of people enjoying the racing at Ascot don’t know how to ride a horse,” he said. “We have to have good motor racing, we have to give them a show. I think the human element will always be a key part.”
No-one has a clear road map because the automotive industry is in a phase of major disruption.
“What’s important is that motorsport is ahead of what’s going to happen (in automotive),” said Agag, who noted that silicon valley investors are pouring into flying cars. If car manufacturers follow into flying cars then motorsport might pivot more in that direction. However, what could be more important than autonomous technology is what happens in the virtual space, with the growing influence of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and the extent to which people can participate in race events. The mythical 21st car in a GP, driven virtually by millions of gamers around the world in real time, is not far away and is likely to bring a new generation to the sport.
So gaming and real racing merge and the lines between them blur. Arguably under 18s find it easier to relate to esports races than to grand prix races involving real cars.
One of the key benefits motorsport provides is to enhance a brand; it helps differentiate Ferrari from other luxury brands not in F1. In an autonomous future, where robotaxis pick you up, you’ll have a subscription to a service based on brand preference for the experience you want, like your choice of airline and class of travel.
The conclusion of this thought leadership panel was that motorsport can and should be the innovation agenda of the global manufacturers – such as the demonstration by the engineers of the F1 hybrid turbo engines in 2014 that they could drop the amount of fuel needed to cover a GP by 30 per cent, while going at the same speed. Super fast battery charging is a similar technological step that will be demonstrated in Formula E in the next few years.
Autonomous cars and racing were on the agenda at the Motorsport Leaders Business Forum