Meet the Self-Driving Car Built for Human-Free Racing

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Designers get to have a lot of fun with self-driving cars. Foldaway steering wheels. Spinning seats. Screens everywhere you look. After all, things get wild when the human inside doesn’t have to drive, or even look at the road, anymore. But when you take the human out of the car altogether, the design department can fully let loose.

“We want people to see this like a Tron, or an Oblivion, or a Star Wars spaceship,” says Justin Cooke, chief marketing officer of Roborace.

Roborace, if you haven’t figured it out, is the company starting the world’s first motorsports serious for driverless cars. And today at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it showed off its star vehicle, which looks like it comes straight off the set of a high-budget sci-fi flick. The real-life, race-ready robocar resembles a crouching insect, ready to leap. The center of the body is just a narrow spine (no cockpit) and the four wheels (some things don’t change) are tucked inside huge aerodynamic scoops.

In Roborace’s vision of the future, the software’s the star, but car designer Daniel Simon gets the Oscar for supporting actor. He’s spent time with VW, Audi, Bentley and Bugatti, and also penned vehicles for movies like Prometheus, Captain America, and no surprise, Tron: Legacy.

“Today it’s not enough that robots perform well, they’ve got to look good,” says veteran robo-car builder Red Whittaker at Carnegie Mellon University. “I think it’s great that there’s some attention to the aesthetics.” *Cough* Google *cough*.

Roborace has ambitions to be a new global motorsport series, but it’s only just getting started. The longterm plan is to pits teams making robocars against each other on the track, as part of Formula E, the all-electric race series now into its third season. Yep, it’s all change in motor racing.

There’s no firm word on drivetrain yet, but it will be electric, and the company promises to impress with the statistics. The car, built from carbon fiber, weighs 2,149 lbs, and at 189 inches long and 79 inches wide, it’s just a bit smaller than the average Formula One racer. Sensors, a crucial element of any self-driver, include five lidars, two radars, and six cameras. The brain is provided by Nvidia, with its Drive PX2 AI chip.

Fans got a first glimpse of what an autonomous race could look like when Roborace sent two cars out onto the track in Buenos Aires a couple of weekends ago, ahead of the Formula E race there. With space for a human inside, the prototypes don’t look nearly as cool as the car shown here, but hey—they staged an autonomous race. Both cars dodged a dog that ran onto the track, but then one crashed into a wall. But there’s a silver lining there: “We don’t learn as much when we do perfect runs,” Cooke says.

In fact the dog incident gave the team a few ideas. The eventual races could be more like challenges than just loops around the track, with obstacles introduced to keep things thrilling, and reduce the importance of sheer speed.

The bigger hope for robo racing is that the innovations testing on the track eventually make their way into road cars. Developing autonomous systems robust enough for racing should help push technology developments that lead to driverless cars for us all. “So many of the innovations in automotive history have come from racing,” says Whittaker. Stanford University is pursuing that approach with Shelley, an Audi TT modified to be entirely self driving. It has hit speeds of 120mph around a track in northern California, often driving at the limits of the suspension and tires.

Eventually, every team entering the Roborace will get the same hardware—the car unveiled today—but will endow it with racing prowess through their own software. Development has been slower than Roborace originally planned, and it has dialed back on the intention to have 20 cars racing sometime during the 2017 season. As the Googles, Teslas, and Ubers will tell you, making an autonomous car is hard. Today’s unveil of a real, physical, platform is a major step in the right direction. It will almost (almost!) be too hard to watch something that pretty slamming into a barrier.

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