Driverless: What does Roborace Mean for Motorsport?

When steam trains were introduced and developed to reach speeds beyond 50mph a century and a half ago, “experts” genuinely feared that the human body would disintegrate at such speeds. The new technology wasn’t trusted and the worry that women’s uterus’ would fly out of their bodies and litter train stations was real. The fear of new technology is centuries old, so does fear of what a driverless series means to Motorsport suffer under a similar light?

Roborace has recently announced a new CEO. Formula E champion and WEC champion Lucas Di Grassi, who has recently made a statement regarding the whereabouts of roborace’s position in the Motorsport picture. He said,

“Roborace isn’t trying to replace motorsport but augment it. So human motorsport could become more human.

The future of mobility is autonomous, that’s an industry consensus now.

In the same way, I believe that Motorsport is about the driver, who is the best human being behind the wheel.

I want to develop the Roborace series to be complimentary to traditional Motorsport, and not to replace it.”

– Lucas Di Grassi

The first sentence of this comment is the most interesting. An approach to competitive racing that sub-categorises all of the racing we know into “human Motorsport’. It reeks of transhumanism, which adds up even more when you learn that the chassis designer of the Roborace car also designed the vehicles in the latest rendition of the movie “Tron”.

Roborace’s ambitions are lofty but not unrealistic. Autonomous mobility is already starting to happen in the real world, ask any trucker in the United States whether they’ve heard of the concept. The conundrum yet to be solved has to be: will the rise of Roborace and industry automation have a negative effect on traditional Motorsport?

Initially, the landscape may be slightly bleaker given the two key areas of technological advancement that Roborace will be the vehicle for: real-time computer algorithms and Artificial Intelligence technologies. Once the series gets going, there will be a huge financial investment from companies looking to gain an edge in the rapid development of these technologies, although we don’t really yet know what AI actually is, and the term is sometimes thrown around in a manner akin to claiming an absolute understanding of quantum physics.

But over time, as automotive automation becomes commercialised and realised by the public, won’t traditional Motorsport enjoy a surge in popularity? It will become even more gladiatorial to become a racing driver given that the skill of driving and manhandling a machine may be less normalised.

Competitive archery still exists despite the redundant practical military use of bows, and why doesn’t Usain Bolt just jump into his Volkswagen Passat for the 100m sprint? Isn’t the technology to go faster already there? The point is that the fear of driverless technology development threatening conventional Motorsport emerges from a belief that one must overlap the other in a finite space of entertainment, when the reality will be a coexistence.

One potential hiccup for Roborace will be that it lacks the bravery and character of a human driver sitting in the cockpit and making decisions. By computerising this element, the “perfect drive” will exist, and if multiple teams crack the fastest navigation of a circuit in identical cars, how will the race be decided? It won’t be an audacious, last-gasp dive up the inside, or uncharacteristic aggression in defence, these are defined by human judgement, and the use of AI and real-time algorithms will aspire to this, rather than achieve it from the start.

We’re left with a contradiction in which an industry opting for a driverless future will serve Roborace’s technological ambitions, but will also sensationalise human beings who sit in a cockpit and make decisions themselves. Both will exist together, and technological advancements may overlap in time, but Roborace certainly shouldn’t be considered a threat to traditional Motorsport – it should be embraced as an adventurous exercise built on human curiosity rather than human deletion.