Roborace is coming, but not to your kids’ cartoon lineup. If development continues as planned, the nascent racing league aims will be pitting ten teams against each other to see who can design and refine the best non-human driver. This is because “Robo” isn’t in the name just to attract ten-year-olds, but because the focus of the sport is to push and publicize the upper limits of autonomous cars. While the car designs may look like something that would make Speed Racer reconsider the Mach 5, the larger goal is to show the general public that autonomous cars can safely handle a lot, even our relatively dull trips to the grocery store.
Motors, sensors, but no seats
Currently, Roborace still consists of only four prototype vehicles, all lazily dubbed the “Robocar.” Robocar is powered by four 300-kilowatt motors, and can reach speeds close to 200 miles per hour. It’s unusual silhouette is partially thanks to Daniel Simon, who has helped design vehicles for science fiction movies, but also thanks to not needing a proper cockpit. The only driver on board is made of silicone, and so the usual safety equipment to keep a human alive and functional have been dropped to save space, weight and drag.
That’s not to say that this is just motorized wheels. To make up for the lack of a human’s eyes, ears, touch and cognitive abilities, the Robocar is loaded with sensors. These include two radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, two optical speed sensors, six visual cameras, GPS, and five LiDAR sensors, which are a bit like radar, but with lasers instead of radio-waves. The cumulative data is crunched by an onboard computer handling 24 trillion operations per second. Of course, all this hardware is for naught if the car isn’t making the right operations per second, and that’s where Roborace organizers see the real competition heating up.
Cranking up the coding
Right now, Roborace organizers are planning on sharing the Robocar physical design with every team that participates. That’s because they see the real innovation not coming from better sensors, but from the software that uses those sensors. In that sense, the races will be testing each team’s programming, removing physical differences as variables in the races. This puts the focus on making better algorithms that can handle the complexity of measuring ever-changing spacial relationships and making preemptive course corrections in tiny time increments. Ideally, some of those improvements can then be passed on to more consumer-grade vehicles, since presumably a program that can initiate a maneuver to avoid an obstacle while moving at 200 miles per hour should be able to handle a similar dodge when puttering along at 35 miles per hour.
Right now, top drivers can still out perform the Robocar. A trained human brain can make these kind of calculations pretty well when focused on the task, but there’s hope that this kind of competition will help artificial drivers catch up quickly. At the very least, Roboraces should help the public become more familiar, and maybe even comfortable, with autonomous vehicles. In the mean time, let this be fair warning that sci-fi kids’ shows need to step things up a bit, because Robocars are becoming a reality.
Source: Robots, Start Your Engines! by Jesse Dunietz, Scientific American