Take a look at the Roborace racecar pictured here. See anything missing? That’s right: No cockpit. No driver at all. It was only a matter of time, right? Roborace, the newly-announced series that is planned to launch in 2017 as a support series for FIA Formula E, unveiled the first concept of its racecar today, and introduced its chief design officer.
If the car looks like something out of the sci-fi movies Tron: Legacy or Oblivion, there’s a good reason. Roborace’s design chief is German-born Daniel Simon, an artist who worked on both of those movies, and has also served as a senior designer at Bugatti. You’ve got some questions? So have we. Will fans give a flying bleep about racing cars with no drivers in them? Here’s what you need to know now.
What exactly is Roborace?
Kinitek, a venture capital firm that specializes in new technologies, has partnered with Formula E to create a support series for Formula E races around the world. The promoter, Kinitek, will choose the teams. There will be 10 of them, according to Formula E’s CEO Alejandro Agag. “What we do is make our tracks available for them to race,” Agag told The Drive in an exclusive interview. “They are working on the prototypes and the algorithms. It will not be an FIA series, but a support series for Formula E. But they also have a right to do races outside of Formula E.”
What, exactly, is the car going to be like?
“We’re living in a time where the once separated worlds of the automobile and artificial intelligence collide with unstoppable force,” says Daniel Simon, the chief designer of the prototype pictured here. “My goal was to create a vehicle that takes full advantage of the unusual opportunities of having no driver without ever compromising on beauty.” The cars will be fully connected, autonomous, electric, and fast. Certainly not Formula 1 fast, but quick enough, we can assume, to keep it interesting. They will be driven by software developed by competing designers. It’s worth noting that the designer Simon has worked on all manner of sci-fi vehicles and design concepts for motorcycles for Lotus. He is more artist than engineer, for what it’s worth.
Is Roborace trying to take the “man” out of the man/machine relationship that has always been the heart and soul of racing?
“I think fans may appreciate this race of technology,” says Agag. “It’s still about the connection of human and machine. But the human is not driving the car, it’s the algorithm that will drive the car… There are human beings behind these Robocars—the software engineers. So in a way the new heroes of this driverless championship are software engineers.” Is this making you want to buy a “Geeks are Cool” bumper sticker?
When will can we expect to see Roborace?
The series has officially announced it is planning to hold its first competitions during the 2016/2017 Formula E season. That is soon! Agag told The Drive he expects to see Roborace in “probably one of the last races of” of that season. The series is calling its competitions not just races, but “shows,” using the word as if it were airing TV shows. “I see this more as watching a Tron movie or science fiction movie,” says Agag.
Who will be the teams?
“We don’t know yet,” says Agag. “We know that there will be 10 teams and [the promoter Kinotek] is now talking to many companies to talk about who is going to get a team.”
What is the real point here?
It’s clear so far what organizers of Roborace are trying to achieve. “We nicknamed the competition the ‘global championship of intelligence,’” says Roborace’s CEO Denis Sverdlov, “as an open challenge to the world’s smartest minds… I passionately believe that the future of cars is about software, driverless, electric and connected, and Roborace will help to make that a reality.” (Sverdlov, Kinitek’s founder, is a former Russian government official and smartphone technology inventor.) Here’s the real point: Autonomous cars are inevitable. A lot of this technology is already on our roads. Racing has always been the laboratory where automotive technology is innovated, tested, and improved. And in that sense, Roborace is a necessity. There is no doubt that such a series will put autonomous driving technology to the test, and the best will rise to the top.
Will hackers be able to turn Robocars into terrorist missiles?
“Road safety is paramount,” says Agag. “We are focusing very much on all the safety aspects.” We assume we will get more facts on this question as we get closer to the first competition.
So… Will anyone care?
The answer to that question is far more important that who wins or loses these races. Stay tuned—or don’t.