Driverless cars are coming.
No, this isn’t an advert for
the throngs of autonomous
currently driving around
Say hello to Roborace,
a Russian-backed initiative
designed to pit driverless
cars against one another
on the same street tracks
that Formula E visits.
Nobody really knows when
the cars will actually be in a
position to race. Initial hopes
were that Roborace would
appear at Formula E events
this season, but the final
prototype is still a way off.
It’s extremely unlikely we’ll
see more than one on track
before the conclusion of the
2016/’ 17 FE campaign.
The most recent
exercise was getting the
development car “DevBot”
to complete one lap of the
UK’s Donington Park track
unaided. And while it did
achieve that, it did so after
several sighting laps with a
driver at the wheel and at a
fairly underwhelming speed.
The current car is based
on Ginetta’s LMP3
prototype sports car, but
the final product will look
very different. Out will go
the cockpit in its entirety,
and in will come aggressive
styling with the capacity
for “active aero.”
The idea is to attract a
new breed of competitors
into motor racing – such
as specialist engineering
companies and universities
– while promoting
technology and accelerating
Formula E has been
immensely successful in
involved, from new-tech
startups to marques with
links. How Roborace targets
the autonomous sector will
be fascinating to see.
Could Google enter the
arena? Will Tesla deploy its
engineers to start a race
team? Perhaps “traditional”
entities, like Mercedes-Benz or Ford – both
examples of manufacturers
targeting getting driverless
cars on the road in the
coming years – will use it to
get the message out there
that autonomous cars are
here, relevant, capable –
and not to be feared.
The possibilities aren’t
quite endless yet, but the
potential is certainly huge.
Autograph sessions might be a bit lame, but the rest of Roborace
is fascinating. (TOP) Imagineered by automotive futurist Daniel
Simon, the cars will marry A.I. with “active aero.” (ABOVE) An
LMP3-based test mule completed a lap of Donington Park recently.
AND THE DRIVER IS…NOBODY
all-wheel drive, one motor per wheel…but
that can’t happen overnight. It’s a question
of timing: for the fans it can seem like a
long way away, but for us it’s tomorrow.
“When we have manufacturers all over
the grid, development budgets go up and
we’ll have new technology everywhere.
Eight major manufacturers will develop
some serious technology...”
The leading Formula E budgets are
currently somewhere in excess of $10
million, which is a long way from a factory
LMP1 program in the World Endurance
Championship, let alone Formula 1 costs.
It’s logical to think that will increase
significantly – two, three or four times over,
maybe more – when technology opens up
and the arms race escalates. Key to any
chance of Formula E keeping budgets from
going crazy is the spec car – avoiding the
trap of aerodynamic development keeps
a door shut that, once open, can easily
lead to spending spiraling out of control.
Where manufacturers go, money
follows. And so do egos. Manufacturers
are entering Formula E to show they are
serious about electric vehicles and to
prove their technology is the best. When
they begin to lose, or fail to start winning,
how long will they stick around? And if
there is a manufacturer exodus, will the
series have moved to such a high level in
terms of budgetary requirement that it
cannot draw back the independents?
The fascinating thing is that we don’t
know. The championship itself doesn’t
know for sure. Yes, Formula E could burn
bright and wither quickly. But it could also
grow to “must-have” status from the
point of view of manufacturers, meaning
every time one drops out, there’s another
straining at the leash to get involved.
Either way, it makes Formula E’s short-
to medium-term future a fascinating one.
Some of motorsport’s biggest names are
duking it out on a new battleground, and
more are on the way. So sit back and enjoy.
The season just getting under way could
be the start of something very special.
(MAIN) Renault was an early
adopter of Formula E and is the
series’ competitive benchmark.
(BELOW) FIA president Jean
Todt (talking with Renault e.
dams co-owner Alain Prost)
has pushed the relevancy of
the series since its inception.