It was something of a departure for Goodwood. Here, heading up the hill, is a car that’s all but silent. That’s nothing new in itself, of course, and it’s possible that the 2038 Goodwood Festival of Speed will be dominated by cars powered by a flow of electrons rather than a flow of high-octane gasoline.
What was new, though, is that this car, the Robocar, is unmanned. It’s fully autonomous, and makes its way up the hillclimb as a result of quick-fire measurements, signal interpretations and calculations, rather than good old fashioned instinct, bravery and hope. Could this be the future of motorsport? Or could it be the future of something completely different?
Robocar is described as “an extreme motorsport and entertainment platform for the future of road relevant technologies”. It makes a logical counterpoint to the Formula-E electric racing series which is, erm, still catching on. The use of the word ‘entertainment’ is interesting —I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a Formula 1 team declare entertainment among its key aims, but ultimately, providing a spectacle, selling tickets, winning sponsorship and putting bums on seats is what motorsport is all about. But can it still be when there’s no bum, and indeed no seat, in the racing car itself?
It’s an interesting question. And then there’s autonomy, which in Robocar’s current form is essentially a proof of concept based on the most advanced driver-negating hardware currently available. And yes, it can drive itself. Unleash it at the start line, and a GPS receiver gives it locational awareness while radar, lidar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors paint a picture of the road ahead, so Robocar can tell the difference between the bit you can drive on and the bit that you might crash into.
That it made a complete trip up the track was impressive in itself — see the video grab above as proof that it took a reasonably aggressive line through the corner, and it was moving fast enough that you knew it wanted to get to where it was going. The ‘ridealong’ footage showed that Robocar’s digital nerves are still a little shaky, though. You could see that the steering was reacting to every fresh set of impulses as they were triggered, so the hillclimb was negotiated in a string of extremely fine zigzags. If the system could develop instincts, and judge those impulses in such a way as to pick a straight line through those zigzags, a fear-free electronic driver could well put traditional meatbag-steered cars at a disadvantage. Autonomous motorsport could be seriously rapid.
But is it still motorsport? Would a machine designed to play tennis be regarded as an electronic sportsman, or just a machine? Does it matter, anyway?
I can see a time where autonomous circuit racing supplements sports such as dog racing, and could represent a new focus for bookkeepers and betting shops all over the world. An entirely new category of sport, motor racing be damned. Think of the product placement side of things, too: Robocars from Sony, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft all locked in the battle for brand supremacy, and taking their fight to the track. Out with drivers, in with trademarks. Yeah, it becomes a sport for programmers, rather than drivers, but I guess that can be tied up with string and dumped in the progress and evolution bin.
The image above amused me, though — autonomous or not, directed by brain or CPU – it’s a car, it’s on a track, so it still gets a chequered flag. I guess, for now, it’s motorsport.
(Images are screencaps from Goodwood Festival of Speed live video feed, via Youtube)