National Motorsport Academy

Roborace – The Death of the Racing Driver or the Future of Motorsport Engineering?

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Motorsport is a paradox. By its very nature, it pushes the boundaries of engineering yet is steeped in tradition. Ask any true motorsport enthusiast about their most memorable moments of the sport and people will be waxing lyrical about the late great Stirling Moss at Goodwood, the days when F1 wasn’t subject to so many sanctions and when racing was more about the will to succeed, not the money and sponsorship. But there are some new kids in town which some believe are hell bent on ‘destroying’ all that motorsport holds dear
by removing the ego, the personality, the life from the sport. Whether you’re a motorsport purist or like us, keen to see any level of innovation in the racing world, you’re bound to have an opinion on this apparently very contentious subject….Roborace.

All imagery is ©Roborace as far as we are aware other than as stated

 

Roborace: Autonomous Engineering

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We’re sure you’ve already heard of Roborace, the autonomous, driverless, electric racing series unveiled for testing during the in 2016-17 Formula E Championship. 2019 saw Season Alpha of the championship commence and the first race between two totally autonomous cars take place. Team Arrival, already a specialist in autonomous vehicles and the Technical University of Munich were the first two teams to take an identical car and compete to win using ‘only’ algorithms and artificial intelligence. Updates on progress for the series have been limited but the super-slick marketing materials from Roborace HQ keep promising serious speeds and multiple sexy looking ‘DevBot 2.0’s which can be driven by a human or ‘robotic’ driver.

As with all industries, motorsport is now heavily reliant on technology, with software and sensors as much a part of a team’s priorities as tyres and aero. Roborace takes that one step further and this is surely the motorsport engineers dream? No driver ego to consider, no human error on track, just mechanical and software engineering at its most advanced level.

You only need to look at the comments on Roborace’s You Tube Channel and social media to see the excitement that this series is creating. Yet opinion is still split. Is Roborace sounding the death knell of motorsport as we know it or is it the beginning of the future? We asked our tutors to weigh into the argument with some surprising insights.

Kieran Reeves: NMA Director of Motorsport

Studying towards a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, focussing on energy management of hybrid race vehicles. Former Chief Engineer and Consultant.

I’ve kept one eye looking over at Roborace as it started to develop during the 2016/17 season as the concept is the next step from my own PhD research. I have developed many algorithms that optimise trajectory and racing lines to improve lap times. These are also based on vehicle performance, energy management strategies for Hybrid Electric systems and to some extent contain an Artificial Intelligent controller as a ‘Driver’. These all reside within a Matlab/Simulink model and I can run genetic optimisation and/or particle swarm optimisation algorithms in a fully validated simulation environment to find the perfect race time. So, after that overview I return to my first comment that Roborace naturally is the next step. It uses AI systems in a real-world environment rather than just a virtual simulation.

This is what excites me, as the speed has increased in the Robot vehicle and the first 2 car race occurred it is now starting to get very interesting on how individual teams will build their AI systems. From a pure engineer’s view I am looking forward to the day where we see a 20 car grid and all cars have to adapt and utilise split second decision making. What makes a race exciting? The drivers who push the boundaries and make the perfect last-minute decisions that ultimately conclude with a clean but daring overtake. Developing the AI to a place where it will behave like a human is the challenge. In theory, with all other controllable parameters the same: car, set-up, tyres etc. then as proposed the only differentiator is the AI system. As with my PhD theories, it’s inevitable with time that all teams would end up with something similar with regards the AI algorithms, therefore a perfect line and race time is going to be relatively straight forward to optimise and for the AI to learn. It is when 19 other cars are wanting that tarmac space that this race series will get really interesting for the engineers.

Whether this will spawn boring races or extremely exciting races is yet to be seen but I will continue to watch with an eager eye at how this series develops. It is an excellent proving ground for the software engineers and of course will ultimately help to inform the automotive industry with regards to autonomous driving too. Exciting times ahead!

Tim Mullis: NMA Tutor specialising in Data Acquisition, Strategy & Simulation

Tim is currently a Data & Strategy Engineer working in the European Le Mans Series as well as a tutor here at the NMA.

Roborace is great for engineers! Come on, how could it be any better?? It’s seriously high-tech vehicles with sensors feeding information to an AI. Real cutting-edge stuff with problems to solve. It’s a true engineer’s dream come true!

For the engineers working with Roborace out there, please give us more details! Where you are up to?  What does your current system actually do? What doesn’t it do at the moment?  Are the cars actually ‘thinking’?  Give us answers and you would gain a great many engineering fans. Perhaps a different fanbase to typical motorsport but we’re with you! We want to know more about how this all works and what the impact will be on the wider world of motorsport so please start sharing more of the technical innovations going on.

As for ‘traditional’ motorsport, perhaps it’s not so great. Take away the driver and the vital source of excitement is lost. Where’s the adrenaline coming from? Surely the exhilaration of motorsport comes from watching a human being on or in a manmade vehicle going as fast as it will go? There’s no fear, no thrill in an autonomous racing series. The passion to race comes from one of the most primal instincts – the thrill of the chase, so when you remove the human element, what have you got?

Also, in many forms of motorsport, the driver brings in the money. The sponsorship is tied to the ego, the personality. People follow people. They get behind their favourite and spend huge amounts of money on fandom – merchandise, tickets etc. Without that personality how much money would be available to continue development?

However, times change and although I can’t find a source for this, I once heard a story that text messaging was developed by engineers to be used only by engineers to communicate and that it was felt it would be far too ‘geeky’ for the general public and look how that turned out!  Take away the technology from motorsport and you also take away the argument that motorsport helps push development that eventually finds its way into our everyday lives.  Environmental factors can’t be ignored – perhaps driverless is just the first rung on the ladder to only ‘virtual’ racing without the need to travel or use resources! Let’s face it, the current Covid-19 situation has seen the popularity and professional standing of eSports skyrocket.

Perhaps it is still motorsport, we just need to get used to it as times change. Let’s not forget the first race was won with an average speed of 15mph and in 1895 that was cutting edge and exciting!

Wayne Gater: Deputy Director of Motorsport & Big Kid

Specialist in
Aerodynamics and Electrical Engineering

Roborace has been an interesting innovation in motorsport for me and I think it will continue to be of interest to those of the Electronic generation. Having grown up with radio controlled cars, I was effectively a spectator even when I had the controls so to see these cars career around a track ‘unmanned’ doesn’t pose as a problem for me. If anything it almost feels somewhat nostalgic, not to take away from the massive advances in tech!

I haven’t seen the latest in developments so I’m not sure what they are proposing now, be it pre-programmed or whether there will be any real time remote driver involvement but I recently attended a conference where there was a balanced amount of praise and reservation for the autonomous racing form. 

It’s interesting to think how two computers will perform in terms of going for the gap. Does one decide on its line and the other compromises? Which one gives? Is this a decision that the sensor make depending on how they’re set up? Or do they both go for the line? If they do, does one know it can’t hold its line if it runs a tyre onto the kerb or the grass even? Depending on the crashfest potential, this may make for a winning formula for attracting spectators! I know that when I was racing my RC10B2 (the R/C boys will know what that is), all gaps/opportunities were taken. Whether the car ended up on its roof or in the wall of the hall we were racing in, scale that up and you have the recipe for some interesting watching! Although a corner on my R/C car only cost me a week’s pocket money so there’s another factor that may dictate how this race series would play out. As Tim said, it’s the human element that provides the cash to compete. The tickets, the merch, the sponsorship. Without the following will money dry up before the series has even had a chance.

It’s incredibly interesting from an engineer’s point of view though and I think it will certainly be a gateway for programmers to get into Motorsport. That will in turn have a knock-on effect on motorsport as we currently know it as all the best tech eventually filters down.

All vehicles will be autonomous at some stage so I think this should also act as a reminder to appreciate the drive! I hate driver aids and all the nanny systems are always switched off on my car (where legal obvs). There’s a purity to having to control your own throttle, steering and braking. This is something that wouldn’t impact Roborace, but if the tech started coming into other race series, it may start to make the drivers feel like passengers. However, minds can be changed and there is always an element of ‘fear of something new’. I’m an optimist, I think it will be a good addition to motorsport generally. 

IMG_7089
Hot Wheels Robocar via Lamley Group

Roger Grimshaw: Specialist in Maths for Engineering & Fundamentals of Motorsport Technology

Grumpy Old Man and ex-Race Car Driver

As far as I am concerned Roborace is Satan's doing. I have nothing more to say.

(Editor’s note: Roger was a reasonably successful amateur race driver at one time, so this stance is unsurprising) 


The Verdict

All in all, the verdict is favourable. But what would you expect from a bunch of academically driven motorsport nuts? That’s also why we chose them! All of our tutors, Roger included, are involved in the grassroots of motorsport innovation and help our students to expand their learning far beyond what is already possible. We have details of some final year projects which explore applications of simulations far beyond what is commonplace in the industry which we’ll soon be sharing.

The field of engineering is in a constant state of flux and progression. It’s the true nature of the beast. Without innovation, without improving on existing and developing new concepts, what’s it all for? Let’s be honest, it’s still the human brain powering the cars, just not in the form of driving. If you want an example of engineering excellence you don’t get much more convincing than this.

According to Lucas di Grassi, Roborace CEO and ex Formula E World Champion, Roborace poses no threat to real-world drivers, just as SIM Racing poses no threat to motorsport engineering.

“It’s not because Deep Blue beat [Gary Kasparov] that we don’t have chess matches any more. Humans will always compete! We are just evolving the technology!”

We did approach Roborace for comment and we will continue to try and get some more information about the tech and the future but for now….watch this! The Roborace Robocar doing 175.49mph to become the World’s Fastest Autonomous Car –

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