The World's First Driverless Racing Series Doesn't Know What That Means Yet

Photo credit: Alanis King/Jalopnik
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The people behind Roborace, as the name suggests, plan for it to be the world’s first driverless, electric racing series. They brought on a Tron designer to create a futuristic dog bone of a car, they’ve tested autonomous prototypes countless times and they’re expecting to get racing underway in the next few years.

But they’re still not sure where to go with this thing, although they’re dripping with ideas—weird ones, too.

“We want to make the platform very much relevant to road cars, and we need to kind of [imitate] the city environment,” Roborace CEO Denis Sverdlov told Jalopnik earlier this summer ahead of New York’s Formula E race. “So, we need to see other cars, obstacles—unexpected obstacles—and it needs to be dynamic.”

Sverdlov, sitting in a restaurant booth overlooking Times Square next to Roborace car designer Daniel Simon, walked through all of the possibilities that could become the format and vision for the racing series—one he hopes will defy the understanding of modern motorsport.

He didn’t attach himself to any particular one, and some seemed to have popped into his mind right then. At one point, Sverdlov began gesturing with his hands to roughly illustrate a changing start-finish line on a race track.

“It’s not about knowing that the end of the last lap is here,” Sverdlov said. “The next time you come, it could be in a different place.”

Their finish line for developing the series isn’t clear yet, either. That won’t stop them from trying to get there, because someone has to eventually.

They don’t know what they’re doing yet. But that seems to be the point.

The Reasons For A Self-Driving Racing Series

The automotive industry is headed toward an electric, self-driving future. Those things aren’t going to happen tomorrow, but they’re close enough that modern motorsport hasn’t exactly caught up.

Racing has often been a testing ground for carmakers, allowing them to see how their road-car technology will work in the harshest of driving conditions, but that hasn’t been the easiest thing to do since the car world decided to lean toward environmentally friendlier options.

Some major series adapted to newer technologies, like how the FIA World Endurance Championship and Formula One added hybrids to their fields. But WEC has all but priced its teams out at reported running costs of $200 million a year for its top class, and many have left for better and more economical options.

Overall, though, motorsport hasn’t caught on with this green revolution yet. The world’s first major electric racing series—the FIA Formula E Championship, which Roborace will be a support series for—had its first season just a few years ago in 2014, and nobody’s managed to field one without actual drivers yet.

Of course, the question has to be asked: Why? Unlike autonomous cars in consumer applications, the desire to reduce traffic and accidents doesn’t exactly translate into racing, where action and competition in racing are what make fans care in the first place.

That’s what Roborace is here to figure out. The people behind it just have to find out how, and it sounds like that part is a long way out.

The Possible Formats For Roborace

The basis of Roborace will be machine learning, or a bunch of race cars figuring out how to drive a track with artificial intelligence. One of the few rules Sverdlov and his team are sure of is that programmers on race teams cannot predefine a racing path—the cars must go out and learn a race track themselves, using AI software built by the different teams.

The Cars

Right now, the cars Roborace is taking to the track are its “Devbot” prototypes. They look rough, have a human cockpit for someone to be inside the car as it drives itself, and aren’t nearly as sporty or futuristic as the real, planned race car. But they’re not for looks, they’re for testing.

Sverdlov said his goal is for fully autonomous fields of at least 10 race cars to be ready in the next two to three years, and that when the series officially kicks off, it’ll be with Level 5 autonomy—an all-autonomous driving system that requires no humans, and has no restrictions on where it can go or what it can do. He said the Devbots are already at that level.

The in-house team hired by Roborace made the car in 11 months, Sverdlov said, and nearly the entire car was developed by that team. The designer of the dog-bone race car for eventual competitions, Simon, said doing things that way gave Roborace “extreme flexibility” in making the car.

But flexibility didn’t lead to a “wow” moment on track at first. After the debut outing of a Robocar, Sverdlov said, a story called its slowness “embarrassing.”

“It was difficult to explain that the car was in the ‘explore’ mode, so when we put the car on the track, it didn’t know anything about this track,” Sverdlov said. “It was just starting to move and sensing all of the things around it.

“After one lap, it created the map so it could go faster. It probably didn’t look amazing the first, but that was a really important milestone for the AI team.”

Neither Simon nor Sverdlov would comment on how fast cars would race around tracks, if they even use traditional tracks, but said the vehicle itself has a top speed of 200 mph.

“We definitely expect that it’s going to be faster than human drivers today, but not by much,” Sverdlov said. “It’s powerful, it can accelerate very fast and it can brake very fast. The performance is very much up to the algorithms.”

How The Actual Racing Will Work

Here’s where things get weird. Here, just let Simon walk you through the one decided-upon idea for the Roborace format:

“We don’t want to copy the classic racing format—practice, qualifying, race, first corner, crash and all of the cars are out,” said Simon, a former Bugatti employee who considers himself a huge motorsports fan.

“We are so open to all of these ideas, and not having a driver in the car also allows us to do all of these formats of things people wouldn’t even risk or dare to do with racers. I mean, they’re risk takers, but they have their limits.”

So, are we talking jumping through flaming hoops or over bodies of water? Put simply, maybe someday. And if that happens, it could help answer the “why should anyone watch this” question.

“We could have 10 of those [cars] jumping really closely and the closer they get, the more points they get,” Simon said. “I don’t know. This is such a fantastic opportunity.

“I’d rather compare it to an acrobatic air show [than to a traditional racing series], with 10 planes flying closely to each other, and you get points for synchronization. It’s an entertaining format, so it is motorsport, but to the public, that’s such a limiting word, I almost want to steer away from it.”

Simon would prefer it to be “more like a circus—a super high-technology one.” He hopes that’ll throw you off, too.

Hearing that introduces an entirely new idea about rules, such as wondering whether cars will actually be racing for the win like in most motorsports. Simon and Sverdlov have no idea what kind of approach they’ll take to determine the top team yet, but they have a few ideas.

“Each sport has their own pointing system,” said Simon, who added that perhaps race cars will have to do challenges and those with the most points for top speed, avoidance and things like that will win. “Maybe it’s even sort of a broken-up system of a season where you strive to be the No. 1 in the AI world rank, or something like this. We don’t know.

“And the idea of David vs. Goliath is fantastic—the hacker aspect of, like, I can outsmart a gigantic, billion-dollar company with my homemade code. We have this open idea, because everything we know in motorsports is very old fashioned and rigid and hasn’t really changed in 100 years.”

What may be changing, for Roborace, are the race tracks themselves—during the race. Simon and Sverdlov don’t want viewers to lose sight of the fact that these cars are adapting to the race tracks on their own, so they may throw in some twists.

“In the long run, maybe we have flexible tracks that change slightly every lap,” Simon said. “If they do 10 similar laps, people may lose the understanding that it’s doing all of these things by itself. So, let’s say there was a moving track—”

“So we expect to have obstacles,” Sverdlov cut in. “Obstacles. We plan to have obstacles on the track.”

“Constantly adjusting,” Simon added.

Since the cars are still testing and the vision, for now, looks for the series to keep developing over the years, the two aren’t even sure how they’ll define the first real race. They may just leave it up to the viewers.

“We already have Devbots running on tracks at high speeds,” Simon said. “You can follow us grow, and I find that fascinating. So, events get bigger and bigger and bigger to the point that people say, ‘I feel like this is the first real race.’”

Making It The ‘New Democracy In Motorsports’

Once series begins, Sverdlov said Roborace will provide the hardware and teams to do repairs in the case of hardware failures or wrecks. That’s to allow for kids making algorithms in their bedrooms to compete with major car manufacturers, without multi-million-dollar programs dominating everything.

“If some company comes in and puts $20 million into a new motor, they can win just because their motor is better,” Sverdlov said. “But we want the competition to be about the software.”

Sverdlov said Roborace expects to use a digital platform to qualify for the chance to race in the series, meaning Roborace won’t be composed of 10 teams with huge budgets. It can be for teams of any budget, so long as they can create an algorithm.

“We’re using a digital platform for developing those algorithms and making the qualification for these teams,” Sverdlov said. “We expect that we can have 100 teams and only the best ones that are competitive can get access to a real car and a real environment.”

“It’s kind of the new democracy in motorsports,” Simon said.

Putting A Human Element Into A Robotic Series

NASCAR has fights. Formula One has drivers talking about foreplay and farting during press conferences. IMSA has Jordan Taylor and his dog.

Roborace won’t have any of that.

That means the series already has a big gap to fill, since drivers are usually the stars of motorsport—not the crew that works behind the scenes, or the team owners. Those people have a big role in the sport, but they’re often not the ones everybody’s lining up to get autographs from as they walk by.

Filling The Gap In Racing Stars

Human race-car drivers are good at making drama, like F1’s Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton did by having a ramming match with their cars on the race track this year. Simon and Sverdlov hope AI-powered robots can be just as good.

“The movie Chappie, it was about a robot, and it’s quite weird—I was interested in this robot and feeling sorry for him or trying to support him,” Sverdlov said. “It has the movement and even the motions, you can see it. So, it’s quite and interesting area. I really believe that each car will have its own character—”

“Which we haven’t really touched on yet,” Simon jumped in to say.

Thinking 10 years into the future, Simon said, maybe these cars have things like organic surfaces, voices, breath, “or maybe they even sweat.”

“If you could take that Sebastian-Hamilton situation there, maybe the car in the back can raise its feathers,” Simon said. “Maybe not that, but maybe there’s an animalistic thing to it where it just like hisses.”

Simon called the yearning for human drivers in motorsport a “game of our mind,” saying they’re not the most important part. He said much of the success at the F1 level is more about the team and car rather than a driver, and said F1 in particular continues to “enclose the driver more and more” for safety reasons.

The halo cockpit protection is coming in 2018, meaning F1 drivers will have a wishbone-style bar over themselves in the race car.

“When the Lotus 49 came out, Jim Clark, I could see him work the wheel—not personally, but you know what I mean,” Simon said. “[Ayrton] Senna era, still shoulders exposed and I could see them gesture.

“Today, all I see is the top of the helmet, which is a grayed graphic design,” Simon said. “Today, the only chance of individuality for a driver is the top of their helmet, because that’s all you see. All I see are the post-race interviews, which are rather embarrassing these days because there’s so much politics and it’s so weird.”

Simon also said he loves to watch NASCAR, purely because he finds it “amazing how these metal boxes go so close to each other at high speeds.”

“I do not know who’s in these cars,” Simon said.

In Roborace, Simon and Sverdlov also expect human drama to come from the sidelines—the people who make the cars’ software.

“If I watch a soccer game and something happens on the field, I can’t wait to see a shot of a coach freaking out,” Simon said. “[The coach] is not technically involved, not on the field. I think that’s a good example of a lot of emotion happening in a sport, but that person did not touch a ball.”

Simon also compared the future engineers behind Roborace car software to a DJ, who “orchestrates this incredible event” yet you don’t see the people playing the individual instruments.

“I see this in a similar way, where we have iconic programmers who are just superstars in the field in 10 years and kids have posters of that person on their wall. We don’t know, but coding is a new world that can create iconic [people].”

Getting Fans Involved In The Development

Simon and Sverdlov are always quick to say Roborace is “very transparent,” and they’re right. They don’t mind telling you that they have no idea where things are going, and they don’t mind asking fans what they think the series should be.

“We have to start somewhere, and all of these questions are exciting because we are finding the answers for them,” Simon said.

Sverdlov said series channels get a lot of messages and comments about what Roborace should eventually be, and hopes they can balance industry and public interests in the approach chosen.

“What makes us very, very special is that we’re not the racing series that says ‘OK, this is the format and everything else is irrelevant, and we don’t change the format because this is our main asset,’” Sverdlov said.

“In our case, we’re saying ‘No, for us, it’s a platform and for the format, we can do one event that’s totally different than one next week.’”

Sounds like NASCAR. But, in all seriousness, Sverdlov said the series—once it begins in the next few years—needs to remain relevant to the public while also remaining a development program for companies and others.

But don’t expect moving obstacles and 10 cars jumping over bodies of water simultaneously right from the start of the series.

“If you take a child who was just born, you don’t expect this child to run 100 meters with Usain Bolt,” Sverdlov said. “In our case, it’s artificial intelligence, which takes time. We just need to be open to it.”

For now, both Simon and Sverdlov agree that watching the AI drivers grow is a “fascinating journey” that they just want to be part of.

“Every time we see the cars move, it’s magical,” Sverdlov said. “You understand how it goes [through artificial intelligence] and all of the technology, but when it starts to work and its starts to move—”

“That’s why we need to bring it to people to see it,” Simon said.