Nerd versus nerd is coming. Or is it geek versus geek? Or geek versus nerd?
Well, I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter, and although there’s some debate on the internet about those respective descriptions, they’re both meant as a compliment. They describe people who might make an autonomous car, and then try to make it go faster than another one just for the fun of it. A kind of Robot Wars for speed, only without the violence and Dara Ó Briain.
There already is the occasional autonomous racing car. There’s one called Robocarthat’s being developed to compete in a planned series called Roborace. I’m still not entirely whether it will work but Wolfgang Dürheimer, the boss of Bugatti and Bentley, as well as the Volkswagen Group’s motorsport activities, thinks that an autonomous race series is coming.
“There will be an autonomous race at Le Mans within five years,” Dürheimer predicted the other day, with the confidence of a man who knows that there will definitely be an autonomous race at Le Mans within five years.
Which is interesting. Or is it? It could be, but might not be. Some motor racing series make it hard enough to be interesting even when there are people inside the cars doing unpredictable things. Take that away and I’m not sure exactly what you’ll have. Which, I suppose, is unpredictable in itself.
“Will people go [to watch]?” asked Dürheimer. “No, but they’ll sit and watch it on the [internet].”
So the next question is whether he wants the VW Group to be a part of it. “We have to decide if we will be involved,” Dürheimer said. Why would he? Well, to prove the technology and make sure it’ll sell to the public, I suppose. “Would you put your eight and 10-year-old children in an autonomous taxi now? No, nor would I,” Dürheimer said. To be fair, I might already, if it meant it waited for them and spared me standing and shouting up the stairs for 20 minutes every morning, but I take his point.
But after you’d seen autonomous cars racing neck and neck with skill and panache, would you trust a taxi made by one of those companies? So long as you put cyclists/dogs/blowing bin bags/oncoming traffic/ fog into the mix and the cars skilfully manoeuvre around those. Then it’ll build trust.
Which means autonomous racing is very obviously a marketing tool. A way of proving vehicles to the public. Ironically, then, a return to motorsport’s roots, which were about precisely the same thing: proving a car, and not about which driver is the fastest, which is a different story. ‘Victory’ in the first ever motor race was awarded to the car that finished second. And it’s still the reason manufacturers get involved in racing in the first place, albeit not the reason that people like to watch motorsport.
And there’s the nub of it. More than any other motorsport, autonomous racing is only likely to be seen as a marketing exercise, because it lacks what the best motorsport has: stars. Someone to cheer for.
So robotic racing: as a way of reassuring you that, given these cars can dice at high speed for victory, they can cope with the school run, such a series could be effective – but only if somebody is around to see it.