Do driverless cars need sport to go mainstream?

roboracesThere has always been a competitive element to driverless car technology, with the annual DARPA challenges testing entrants against a range of courses and challenges.

This competitive element has undoubtedly played a major role in the development of the technology, to the extent that driverless cars are now practically ready for commercial operations.

Whilst the technology is far advanced, the legislative and social attitudes towards the concept is slightly less advanced.  Can sport play a role in helping society come to terms with the thought of driverless technology?

Driverless World Championship

The Formula E championship is a motor racing series for electric vehicles.  It features 10 teams of two drivers, with the cars racing around city-center circuits.

The team behind Formula E have joined forces with technology company Kinetik to launch a new championship, only this time the racing will be done by automated vehicles.

The driverless championship will act as the warm up event for the Formula E races on the same day, and will feature 10 teams of driverless vehicles racing on the same circuits as the human drivers will be using later on.


The series will go by the name ROBORACE and will begin in the 2016-2017 season.  The AI guided races will be one hour in duration, although it isn’t clear at this stage whether teams will operate with the same AI or there will be competition between teams in that regard, although you would presume it’s the latter.

The Kinetik team believe that the ROBORACE will make the natural next step for motor racing, as human powered cars gain an increasing amount of AI support.

“In the future, all of the world’s vehicles will be assisted by AI and powered by electricity, thus improving the environment and road safety,” they say.

“ROBORACE is a celebration of revolutionary technology and innovation that humanity has achieved.” they continue.

“Robotic technologies and AI can co-exist with us in real life. Anyone who is at the edge of this transformation now has a platform to show the advantages of their driverless solutions and this shall push the development of the technology.”

Crossover appeal

Suffice to say, with the electronic racing circuit only a year old, it’s not clear just what role that has had in promoting the virtues of electric vehicles to a wider audience.

It’s difficult therefore to assess what impact this might have on our perceptions of automated vehicles, but it’s worth remembering the work of Everett Rogers, who proposed a number of variables behind the diffusion of innovations.

Five variables behind the rate of innovation adoption

  1. How visible is the innovation?  For the innovation to ‘cross the chasm’, the mainstream need to be able to see the early adopters using the innovation.
  2. How easy is it to try?  Is it possible for people to try out the innovation without sacrificing a great deal of time, money or effort.
  3. How much better is it?  I wrote previously about quality trumping first mover advantage, and if you’re to persuade people to shift, the new innovation has to be markedly better than what people currently use.  Bare in mind that to begin with, the gains will probably need to be large as the cost and performance benefits of greater scale probably won’t be available yet.
  4. How compatible is it?  Does the innovation work well with things that people are already using?
  5. How simple is it?  If both the advantages plus the usability aren’t rapidly apparent, then it will always be a struggle to gain adoption of your innovation.

The new race series can certainly help with the first of these variables, and depending on the abilities of the ‘drivers’ it may even highlight the quality issues outlined in number 3.

It could, therefore, play a reasonable role in helping the concept of driverless cars crossover into the mainstream.  Watch this space.


15 thoughts on “Do driverless cars need sport to go mainstream?

  1. Hmm, certainly interesting concept, but I'm not really sure of the sporting value in it. Motor racing is dull enough as it is.

  2. So, my biggest question is: what do you root for in a driverless racing series? Especially if — in the first season, at least — all teams have to use the same car (so no manufacturers).

    The sponsors?
    The technicians?
    Your favorite color?

  3. As a fan of tech this could be really interesting to see progress. As a racer its disappointing to think this is the direction the sport could go.

  4. The key point is that without a driver the cars can go far faster, drive more dangerously, be far lighter and more efficient. It’s a great way to push the technology.

  5. Well. This is it. The end. I'm calling it. RoboRaces. My God. So this is what the future holds.

    We've gone from the likes of Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart and Aryton Senna… to this. An algorithm controlling an autonomous vehicle around a course. The future of cars and racing is looking pretty grim to me, right now.

  6. An hour? What's the f-ing point of that? Just put a demo of Gran Turismo on the big screen.

    Formula E do a half-decent job of involving fans with their 'driver boost' thing, how are we supposed to get excited about an AI driver?

  7. And who/what will receive the trophies at the end of the race? Will Androids stand on the podium for the sake of authenticity? Please tell me this is a joke!

  8. This will be yet another example of how an automated system, once it learns how to do something to a human level, will just get better and better, leaving humans far behind.

    At first, the robots/computers will not be as good as humans. Then they will start to get better and dominate at certain skills (like braking). Then they will be superior across the board. Within a few years, no human driver will be able to hold a candle to an automated system. This pattern has been repeated in domain after domain, despite objections, over the last 30 years. It will only accelerate in the coming years, and millions of jobs will be lost to machines.

  9. I think this series could be cool, after some evolution. If the AIs develop driving "personalities" based on their decision making software, then you could see aggressive types that go for last second corner passes dueling with more strategic AI that prioritize objectives over a longer term.

    Maybe racing creates the breed in this case?

  10. Boring. Aside from all the obvious reasons why this will suck, the technology is no where near ready. So far all they've done is develop a car that uses gps to get around a track as efficiently as possible (which isn't very good seeing as on his show Jay Leno out drove an autonomous Audi by a couple of seconds). It's a whole lot more complex to develop the algorithms for a car to alter it's line based on it's surroundings and eventually get within inches of another car to make a pass. Race tracks don't have lanes and white lines and all the good stuff today's cars look for when operating autonomously. The only interesting part of autonomous racing will be the post-race interview with Siri.

  11. We're compelled to watch a race because we connect with the human being behind the wheel overcoming the obstacles of their car, the track and other drivers around them. We connect with the skill, desire and craft of the driver and root for or against them because of it.

  12. I think people are missing the point here. No one really cares about the sport – that will be boring as you like. What will be cool about this is that it proves that driverless cars can zoom around a track at a few hundred mph in close proximity to other cars trying to do the same thing. If they manage that without crashing every few minutes then that's a pretty awesome proof of concept.

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