The Argentinian summer Sun beat down on the Buenos Aires city circuit as the cars approached the penultimate turn. It was February 18, 2017, the Saturday of Formula E's South American weekend, and two cars jostled for first place. The second car, though, was being too aggressive. Nearing the corner's apex, the vehicle misjudged its position and speed. The vehicle slammed into the blue safety walls surrounding the track. As the wreckage crumpled to a stop, a detached wheel rolled freely across the hot asphalt.
There's nothing like a throw-down to push new technologies out to the masses. A team of high-tech gearheads is applying that age-old adage to self-driving cars, with plans to launch a new motorsport that will pit robotic cars head-to-head on long, winding racetracks. Roborace--which refers both to the sport and its organizer--wants to create an autonomous version of Formula 1 racing, where the superstars are computer programmers whose code unleashes the speed, precision and efficiency needed to take the checkered flag. A key by-product of those victories: innovations that accelerate the path of driverless passenger cars to market. Roborace's plan to be the first championship for autonomous cars has a lot going for it, although also plenty of speed bumps to negotiate.
Ever since we first heard about this company called Roborace that builds driverless AI racing cars, we knew we had to see it in action at some point -- change was in the air. A few weeks ago, we finally had the opportunity to do so and joined the final track test for Roborace's Season Alpha. Roborace is an autonomous-vehicle racing series that combines fully-electric race cars with artificial intelligence, the first series of its kind in the world. Roborace was established to "accelerate the development of autonomous software by pushing the technology to its limits in a range of controlled environments." In 2018, one of Roborace's driverless vehicles, the RoboCar, completed the first-ever autonomous hill climb at Goodwood Festival of Speed.
A quick look through the Cars Technica back catalog (the carchive, perhaps?) shows that autonomous driving technology and racing technology are both topics we return to quite often. But it has been a while since we covered their intersection--specifically, what's been going on at Roborace. The series first broke cover at the end of 2015 and then wowed everybody with the Robocar a few months later. It looks outrageous, made possible because it does not need to protect a human driver or generate meaningful downforce, two factors that overwhelmingly influence most race car designs. Initially, the idea was for a driverless support series for Formula E. Roborace would supply teams with identical Robocars, and the teams would try to program a better racing AI.
What does a fully autonomous, electric, high-performance race car have to do with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)? For starters, the vehicle, developed by Roborace, is providing a testing ground for new efforts to build public trust in how next-generation vehicles could improve road safety and reduce the 1.35 million annual road deaths worldwide (SDG 3.6). Increased use of autonomous, electric, connected vehicles could also reduce emissions, improve traffic flows -- and provide affordable, safe and sustainable transport systems to underdeveloped nations (SDG 11.2). But how do we go from race track to the road? A panel of experts – Bryn Balcombe, CSO at Roborace and Founder of the Autonomous Drivers Alliance; Lucas di Grassi, Formula-E World Champion and CEO at Roborace; and Fred Werner, Head of Strategic Engagement at ITU's Standardization Bureau – met at Web Summit 2019 to discuss how AI will make our roads safer, and how ITU is helping lead the charge.