Self-driving electric robotic race cars will take the stage in the 2016-2017 FIA Formula E season. Called the ROBORACE series, it will be a “support” race to the main Formula E event. Where the Formula E series features electric race cars driven by humans, the ROBORACE series will feature electric race cars driven by … uh … algorithms. Like Formula E, the ROBORACE cars will be identical, with the differences being algorithmic configuration by the representative race teams.
ROBORACE is envisioned as …
a competitive platform for the autonomous driving solutions that are now being developed by many large industrial automotive and technology players as well as top tech universities.
The mission of ROBORACE is to demonstrate that the future of automotive and information technology is already here and can even work in extreme conditions.
Assuming the FIA follows the pattern set by the first two Formula E seasons, the 2016-17 season will begin in September 2016 and feature a series of events starting in Asia, going to South America, North America, and then to Europe. Each event is held in a major city, on regular city streets after barriers have been erected to house viewing stands and create safe racing conditions. Each ROBORACE event will coincide with the Formula E events, and be held immediately prior to the Formula E race.
The series will consist of ten teams each with two driverless electric race cars. Each race will last for 1 hour. The press release does not give specifics – such as whether all twenty cars will be on the track at once – whether it will be ten cars racing at once, and a pit stop halfway through to switch cars – what speed and power level will be used – etc.
One of the ROBORACE teams will crowdsource its team members from “enthusiastic software and technology experts [from] all over the world.”
To launch ROBORACE Formula E turned to a new partner, venture capital fund Kinetik. Kinetik’s website proclaims they invest in “Disruptive Good” stuff that is meant to “change everyday life” aiming towards “the way it should be.” One of Kinetik’s portfolio of investments, Charge, is designing electric drive trains for medium sized trucks, and will be delivering the drive technology for the ROBORACE vehicles.
Charge’s website doesn’t say much – obviously portraying itself as a stealth startup. Reading between the lines a bit, it seems obvious that Charge is looking to develop autonomously driven delivery trucks and is looking to Formula E racing as a way to fine tune their technology.
Denis Sverdlov, Founder of Kinetik and ROBORACE, said: “We passionately believe that, in the future, all of the world’s vehicles will be assisted by AI and powered by electricity, thus improving the environment and road safety. 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. Thus, anyone who is at the edge of this transformation now has a platform to show the advantages of their driverless solutions and this shall push the development of the technology.”
Additionally, Charge will provide additional support as the official Truck Partner of the FIA Formula E series. In that role, Charge trucks will be used for emergency recovery of wrecked race cars and as shuttle buses for the audience.
Robotic Electric Race Cars?
It’s cool to see Formula E expanding its concept. I have to raise a question about this.
Isn’t racing about testing the boundaries of human ability?
An electric race car driving a track with no human aboard has no human element. We’ll be asked to cheer on a robot to victory? Why? What’s our motivation?
Look forward a few years as this sort of technology develops further. Robotic machines are already taking over more and more human functions. A few years ago they began occupying jobs in factories, lessening the value of human labor, now they’ll be taking over the jobs of race car drivers, and in a few years robots will take over the jobs of delivery truck drivers. It’s expected that car sharing services like Uber will develop automated robotic taxi cars, and cut out the role of those pesky humans demanding real wages and benefits.
Is this the future we want?
Humans like to compete, and have done so for thousands of years. Racing with cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and other vehicles is one of the ways humans have competed with each other. Car/motorcycle/bicycle racing series try to eliminate the differences between vehicles to ensure the race is about which human was the best performer, not which technology was best. Racing has always been about humans testing themselves to the limit.
In motorcycle racing, for example, keeping as much speed as possible through a corner means the rider has to be brave and ballsy enough to lean so far over that their suit is dragging on the ground. Going through a series of S curves means flipping the bike back and forth, each time leaning as far as necessary, while the rider tries to find the straightest line through the curves. It takes skill to do this well — human skill married with the desire to stay alive until the end of the race.
Does a robotic race vehicle have any of these attributes?
Another attribute of racing is that competition is a great testing ground to improve technology. The engineers will certainly have a field day refining their algorithms and accelerating the development of autonomous vehicle technology. Presumably autonomous vehicles are a good thing, and Kinetik hopes that Charge will develop even better delivery trucks by dint of being on the scene for autonomous vehicle racing.
All that’s good and it’s expected that autonomous vehicles will give us all many benefits. But … are the robots coming for our jobs? I watched the Matrix movies several dozen times, and I have to ask: Just when will race cars demand equal rights?
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