Roborace series; High Speed racing withOUT The Driver.

A plan to create a series of auto races featuring driverless cars challenges one of racing’s essences – the human factor.

U.K.-based tech investment company Kinetik is bankrolling Roborace, a series of races to be run in conjunction with the existing Formula E international electric car race series, starting with the 2016-17 season.

The plan calls for teams of autonomous vehicles to race each other at what Kinetik chief executive Denis Sverdlov says will be “crazy speeds.”

The race series, which still needs to be fleshed out, aims primarily to push the boundaries of the artificial intelligence (AI) at the core of autonomous-vehicle development.

“We believe that all cars in the future are going to be driverless, electric and connected,” Sverdlov told Yahoo Canada from London.

“Many people mention that they’re not ready for robots on the road. An objective for us is to show that if the robots can do an amazing job in extreme conditions, it’s easy to believe that they will also behave on a normal road.”

This whole artificial intelligence thing that’s part of it, they’re going to need artificial spectators, too.
—Ross Bentley, former race car driver

Sverdlov believes racing could turbo-charge development of vehicular AI, benefitting the cars that end up on our roads, as motor sport has done practically from the beginning. For much of its history, the auto industry’s mantra was “race on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Prototype autonomous cars are already navigating public roads and some, including a couple of Audis, have even lapped race courses. But they have not raced wheel to wheel, something that will test the limits of their ability to react to unexpected situations.

Sverdlov hopes Kinetik subsidiary Roborace Ltd. will be ready to field a starting grid as a Formula E support race by next season, which begins in September. Roborace will supply the electric cars (Kinetik’s Charge subsidiary already produces electric vehicle technology for commercial applications) but it’s up to the competing teams to develop the AI that will run them.

Eventually, said Sverdlov, it’s hoped Roborace will have a full 11-race calendar.

Sverdlov sees AI-versus-human car races eventually

If the Roborace series succeeds, it’s anyone’s guess what impact AI technology might have on other forms of auto racing. Sverdlov foresees a time when AI-piloted cars could go head-to-head, as it were, against human-driven competitors as long as safety concerns can be addressed.

Canadian former racer Ross Bentley, now a sought-after professional race-driving coach based in Seattle, is dubious about autonomous racing being much more than a novelty.

“From a technology-challenge perspective I think it’s fantastic,” Bentley said in an interview.

“But I think from an entertainment, spectator perspective … it’d be like watching one of those robotic vacuum cleaners clean your house without the benefit of having a cleaner house afterwards.

“This whole artificial intelligence thing that’s part of it, they’re going to need artificial spectators, too.”

Two main things draw fans to motor sports: the challenge of seeing teams develop and prepare race-winning cars (or trucks or motorcycles), and the unknown variable factor of the drivers, their skills and their shortcomings, which can influence the outcome of a race.

With seven Formula 1 championships, Michael Schumacher was the series’ winningest driver, but he didn’t win every time. Can a properly-functioning AI-controlled car still have an off day?

“I don’t want to watch a machine compete against something else,” said Bentley. “I would rather go and sit in a room and watch the actual programmers or coders compete against each other than watch the machines drive around the track.”

Endurance-racing great Hurley Haywood agrees.

“Would people really go to watch driverless cars race after the initial novelty has worn off?” Hurley, whose long list of victories includes three at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and five at the Rolex Daytona 24-hour race, mostly in Porsches, said via email.

“So much of racing revolves around the personalities and differing skills of the drivers. How much interest would their be to see driverless electric cars match algorithms on a race track?

Mercedes Formula One drivers Rosberg and Hamilton race in Mexico City, Nov. 1, 2015. (Reuters)

AI engineers could replace drivers as racing stars

While race fans follow their favourite teams, they’re equally drawn to the drivers, their strengths and foibles. Sverdlov believes AI-piloted race cars will draw fans not otherwise interested in motor sports. The engineers, normally anonymous members of a racing team, will be the stars, he said.

“You have super-cool guys who create this magic,” said Sverdlov.

Bentley, who’s coached the likes of NASCAR’s Colin Braun and Erik Jones, is not so sure.

“What makes NASCAR interesting? It’s the drivers,” he said.

“Some people will want to watch just because it’s new and different. And you would have to admit there are going to be some spectators that are just going to want to watch they want to see a glitch in the software so a car will crash into another car or a wall.”