How soon before cars start driving themselves on race tracks? Maybe it’s in the cards, based on this Ford patent application for “Selectable Autonomous Driving Modes.” One of these modes was called “racecar” mode, and it’s exactly what you think it is.
Over on Oppositelock, DCCarGeek was digging around in what I’m assuming was a big, damp box of patents when he found something very interesting from Ford. The basic idea behind this really isn’t too radical, but apparently it’s enough for Ford to apply for a patent.
Basically, they want the passenger in an autonomous car to be able to select a “personality” for the car, and that includes a number of characteristics. As Ford describes in the patent:
 The user interface device 110 may adopt the “personality” of the selected driving mode. For instance, the user interface device 110 may communicate using one of the voices discussed above. Additionally, the user interface device 110 may adjust a color scheme to fit the “personality.” The color scheme for the “chauffeur” mode may include mostly black and white while the color scheme for the “sport” or “racecar” modes may include bright colors or the color schemes of well-known racecars. The color scheme for the “eco-friendly” mode may include green, which is sometimes associated with environmentally friendly objects.
So, these “personalities” include things like ambient lighting color, the car’s synthetic voice, as well as the driving dynamics and style. A number of very rational autonomous car profiles are described, like “comfort/chauffeur mode” or ones that maximize eco-friendly driving styles, or ones that focus on the best time-to-destination results. These all make sense when you’re no longer in the actual loop of physically driving the car.
Then, there’s the “sport” settings:
 The “sport” mode may give the autonomous vehicle 100 a sportier feel to the occupants. When operating in the “sport” mode, the autonomous driving system 105 may implement more aggressive acceleration, deceleration, and cornering maneuvers, as well as more abrupt steering actions. The suspension system may be “stiffened” to permit faster cornering, for instance. When accelerating from a stop, the aggressive acceleration may cause more wheel slip than in some other modes. Noise may be less of a concern to occupants wishing for the autonomous vehicle 100 to operate in the “sport” mode. Therefore, the autonomous driving system 105 may allow for louder engine revving and higher available engine power.
and now “racecar”:
 The “racecar” mode may be implemented on a closed course or track. When in the “racecar” mode the autonomous driving system 105 may operate the autonomous vehicle 100 as if a professional racecar driver was driving the autonomous vehicle 100.
These settings are fascinating for many reasons, and bring up a lot of questions. We’re used to these sort of mode settings on cars we drive, and for performance cars, they usually are pretty important, changing the way the car handles and reacts to our inputs and performs.
It matters because we’re actually controlling the car, and when, say, you’re in a car on a track and you put it in a track-only mode that releases you from the invisible, motherly hand of stability control, you have to adjust your driving style accordingly to both take advantage of the opportunities offered and to not end up sideways in the dirt because you got overconfident.
But when we’re no longer driving, what do these settings actually mean? In sport mode, sure, you can turn that on while you’re on the street and your car will rev louder and accelerate faster and take turns harder, and yes, that’s fun, but if you’re not the one driving, how much does it still matter?
Remember, the autonomous car is going to feel and sound more ‘sporty,’ but it’s going to obey every traffic and speed limit law, and it’s not going to be waving pinks at Mr. Haircut in the Camaro at the next stoplight. Which makes sense. But it also makes the ‘sport’ mode a little silly.
The “racecar” mode is even more problematic. As slow and sloppy as I am on a track, I genuinely love driving there. The reasons I love it aren’t just about the speed and the noise and the way it feels—even though those are all factors—but because it’s something I’m focused on, something I’m doing that demands complete focus and engagement.
I’ve ridden shotgun on hot laps with some incredible drivers, in incredible machines—in the air and into mud in a Pro-Lite truck, in a vintage Jag on public roads in Italy, in an insanely quick GRC car, on tracks—and while every one of these experiences was a blast, they’re nothing like actually driving yourself.
Even when you’re doing your best to watch the driver and learn something, a hot lap from the passenger seat in a fast car on a track is closer to being on a rollercoaster than actually driving that same car on the same track. If you’re in an autonomous car in race car mode, that’s what you’ll get.
Now, I’m not saying it won’t be fun; I suspect that it will be a lot of fun. But let’s not pretend here: it’ll be a ride. Having your own portable roller coaster is great, sure, but actually having that mode in your own car is a little bizarre, if you think about it.
There’s a lot I like about the idea of autonomous race cars. I think it would be fun to watch them race. I think building and racing one, with tweaking the software as being as much a part of the process as, say trying different headers is now, could be a really fun thing to do. I think they could make great opponents to a human-driven race car on a track as well. But they’re not a substitute for driving on your own on a track.
The unsettling part about this patent is that where we all may have viewed autonomous cars as being something that handles the drudgery of driving, the boring commutes, the errand runs in traffic, now the robot is going to be doing the fun driving as well.
It’s sort of like developing an advanced sex-bot, but instead of you going at it with the sexbot, you program it to bang your partner. You can watch, if you want.
I’m not surprised to see this. An algorithm can learn how to be an effective, fearless, focused, and capable race car driver most likely far better than most of us meat-monkeys can. I think it’s even a positive thing that such a mode could exist on a future autonomous car.
I hope people go to a track and take a ride with a racecar-robot. I hope they have a blast, and appreciate the sensations of speed and excitement and feel the pull and shifting weight. I hope they want more of it.
But I hope they want to take the wheel the next round. At least once, at least to see what the full experience is like, and why we bothered to build all these tracks in the first place.