Opinion: Roborace Crash Offers Sport Some Much Needed Excitement

Unaware that the inherent danger of motorsport is often what makes it popular (check the ratings for any series throughout history and count the number of driver fatalities if you’re in doubt) Roborace plans on becoming the first global championship for battery-driven autonomous cars programmed to run the course without help. Organizers are convinced that the sport will eventually yield compelling competition with teams using nothing more than their own coding acumen and self-driving hardware. Chassis and powertrains are shared between vehicles, making this a battle of real-time computing algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies.

It actually sounds kind of boring. But one of Roborace’s first live-broadcasted events opened with a bang after one of the cars pitched itself directly into a wall — suggesting organizers could still give the viewing public what it wants.

That hasn’t kept me from finding the sport generally loathsome, however. After piggybacking off Formula E for a couple of years, Roborace was finally ready to upend automotive competition as we know it and herald in “motorsport 2.0,” which basically involved seeing if AVs could reliably go around a racetrack. Season alpha, so named to underline the emphasis on development/programming, introduced DevBot 2.0 and allowed the autonomous racers to be controlled by actual racing drivers. It also helped show that this “sport” was really more of an extended proof of concept — a tradition that has continued through 2020.

Season beta is supposed to foreshadow Roborace’s official championship but it’s clear that organizers are still futzing around with formatting. There’s even a “metaverse” being introduced that incorporates virtual anomalies that cars have to account for. That can include everything from fake walls they’ll have to swerve to coins they’ll want to hit to gain points. Roborace has even said its systems can input digitized weather patterns that cars will have to contend with, which sounds like bullshit since they don’t affect the track in any real way. It honestly feels like a last-ditch effort to make events seem more exciting as viewership has clearly become an issue.

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None of this is exciting because none of it’s real and there aren’t any stakes without a human driver. Roborace doesn’t even have full teams present for events due to the pandemic. Practically everything that doesn’t involve physically transporting the vehicles onto the track is being done remotely, making the Acronis SIT that crashed on Wednesday the only incident at Thruxton worth mentioning. It’s hardly the first time an autonomous vehicle suffered a malfunction/miscalculation that ended in a wreck at Roborace. But it gave your author an idea he hopes organizers will embrace.

While Roborace seems a solid way of developing autonomous and AI technology, it’s just awful to watch. There are no drivers to cheer, no manufacturer rivalries to keep track of, and the novelty of self-driving cars is quickly wearing off. But here’s where the sport could turn things around and actually make things engaging for fans. Rather than having these cars go around a track mimicking Formula E, why don’t organizers set up rallycross sprints that are far too dangerous for human drivers to consider tackling? Ramps, moving barricades, spike strips and more could be incorporated — though one would imagine the cars themselves would have to be modified to be more cost-effective if catastrophic damage becomes the rule and not the exception.

CEO Lucas di Grassi has already decided to scale things back and change events around to incorporate opportunities for real drivers to go head-to-head with autonomous cars. Why not allow them to pilot the cars remotely in a joker lap before the computer is required to regain control of the vehicle?

This is likely wishful thinking on my part. Whatever costs are incurred by transforming Roborace into a demolition derby probably won’t be offset by the uptick in viewership. But something clearly needs to change when the only thing anyone seems to care about was an autonomous car that comically pinned itself to a wall before making it down the first straightaway. The sport won’t endure without some tailoring and these promised flashy computer graphics just aren’t going to cut it. Thankfully, Roborace seems relatively self-aware and has repeatedly had leadership suggesting the series would be a groundbreaking addition to motorsport or spectacular failure.

[Image: Roborace]

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