In October, automated racing will no longer be the stuff of fantasy. Formula E, the electric-car racing series, will feature Roborace, a competition between driverless cars. It may sound strange to hold a race without drivers, but in this case, the competitors will be computer scientists. There will be 10 teams, each with two identical electric race cars.
How does it work? Think slot cars, but without the slots and without the controllers, zooming around a real, life-size track. The competition aspect is simple: May the best code win.
Roborace will be run concurrently with the Formula E series, with stops in London; Paris; Berlin; Moscow; Beijing; Buenos Aires; Mexico City; Punta Del Este, Uruguay; Putrajaya, Malaysia; and Long Beach—pitting the 10 software-engineering teams against one another in hour-long races.
The cars look futuristic. That shouldn’t come as a shock; Daniel Simon, a former Bugatti designer who created the “light cycles” for the movie Tron: Legacy is behind the design. When the concept driverless race car was revealed this spring, Simon said that the absence of a driver allowed his team more room to play with the design, resulting in a shape that’s much different from anything we’ve seen.
“My goal was to create a vehicle that takes full advantage of the unusual opportunities of having no driver without ever compromising on beauty,” Simon said at the car’s debut. “The Roborace is as much about competition as it is entertainment. Therefore—and quite unusual in today’s racing world—beauty was very high on our agenda and we work hard to merge the best performance with stunning styling.” Simon also revealed that the car’s scoop-like wings would create “substantial downforce,” which could, theoretically, allow for unorthodox track obstacles.
The real power behind the upcoming race series isn’t in electric motors or sleek design; it’s in the car’s ability to process huge amounts of data at lightning speed. Roborace enlisted the help of Nvidia, a Silicon Valley tech company, to develop the supercomputers needed to power the cars’ programming. Nvidia said in April that the DRIVE PX2 computers that will power each car can perform as many as 24 trillion operations per second—about the same as could 150 Macbook Pro laptop computers. Roughly the size of a lunchbox, each DRIVE PX2 computer will process inputs from an array of inputs, including cameras, radar and lidar sensors, GPS positioning, and high-definition mapping programs.
Kinetik, the company behind Roborace, hasn’t yet offered more details about the car or the race. We don’t know yet how the cars’ drivetrains will be laid out, how much power their electric motors will produce, or how the races will be formatted. But Roborace told us that it would make a more detailed announcement in the fall, closer to the start of the series’ inaugural season.
For now, we’ll have to imagine brightly colored high-tech supercars zipping around in Tron-esque loops, a huddle of white-jacketed scientists watching with bespectacled fascination as their many hours of number crunching unfolds on the track. If driverless racing catches on, there undoubtedly will be a number of real, live cheering fans in attendance as well.