Roborace, world’s first driverless championship

When diehard motorsports fans first heard of an all-electric race series, many were skeptical about the power, speed and excitement that ...

When diehard motorsports fans first heard of an all-electric race series, many were skeptical about the power, speed and excitement that these new race machines could offer. True enough, there have been multiple battery issues since the first season of Formula E last year, as well as the absence of adrenaline-inducing engine roars. But now that the second season is underway, the more environmentally friendly series (as it is touted) is accumulating a significant fan base of its own (the Putrajaya ePrix scored higher viewership ratings on FOX than any of the F1 races this season).

Last Friday, organisers of Formula E announced that they will be adding a driverless championship in the 2016/17 season, to showcase autonomous driving solutions on a competitive platform. Driverless technology is now in the not-too-distant future as major automotive and technology players have been aggressively investing in it and having significant progress to show for it; for instance, the Google self-driving car took to public roads in California for testing in June this year and could be ready as soon as 2020.

Formula E will be pairing up with investment company, Kinetik, to run the Roborace before each Formula E race, on the same circuits as the electric car races which take place in ten major cities across the world, including Beijing, London, Paris and Long Beach. The Roborace will last for an hour, with 10 teams controlling two driverless cars "using real-time computing algorithms and AI (artificial intelligence) technologies".

Formula E has been more inclined to encourage crowd participation, evidenced with their controversial Fan Boost feature, with which fans can vote to give their favourite drivers a boost during the race (turning a part of the race into a sort of popularity contest). In the Roborace, one of the teams will be made up of crowd-sourced members who are from the software and technology arenas. 

It has not been announced yet whether other traditional automakers will be involved in the Roborace or will be represented as other teams. Mercedes-Benz and Audi are longtime participants in Formula One and masters in designing sportscars, and are already including very advanced automated driving systems in their production cars. Other potential teams, besides Google, are another little tech company which you might have heard of - Apple - which is also developing its own self-driving car; automotive superstar, Tesla Motors, is also jumping onto the driverless bandwagon.

Formula E chief executive, Alejandro Agag, predicts that the Roborace will be "one of the most cutting-edge sporting events in history…(It) is an open challenge to the most innovative scientific and technology-focused companies in the world.” But in motorsports, the drivers are very much celebrities in their own right. Without a face to represent the team and technology, will fans be just as eager to rally for them? We are eager to see.

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