Roborace showed off its electric, self-driving race car in the middle of Times Square
The robotic racing series Roborace is still somewhat of a pipe dream that aims to become the “world’s first self-driving racing series.” On Friday, we got our first in-person look at the 200-mph vehicle that will eventually race itself around the track: the Robocar.
The sleek, brightly colored racer was plopped down in New York City’s Times Square, attracting the attention of NYC locals and tourists who just didn’t know what to make of the thing. Its creators believe those questions will soon be answered, adding to the larger conversation about autonomous driving development.
The race car, which doesn’t need a human driver, will continue its U.S. debut at Formula E’s New York City ePrix event this weekend. When the concept was first introduced back in 2015, the plan was to hold self-driving races before each Formula E event. While the Roborace cars aren’t ready for that just yet, the company will be showing off its autonomous systems in two on track demos this weekend using the company’s prototype DevBot cars. The Robocar, for now, is just for show.
“The race format pushes the boundaries of [various] technologies, which allows Roborace to be the [development] and marketing platform for real things that will eventually be adopted in road cars,” Roborace CEO Denis Sverdlov told Mashable. “We’re promoting the future of autonomous cars, too. We believe that when people see the Robocars performing in extreme conditions, they’ll be able to accept them on the roads.”
The Robocar is easy to get excited about, especially after you see it in person. Each wheel has its own 300kW motor, which will purportedly help it reach its 200 mph top speed. The car’s computing power is provided by the Nvidia Drive PX2, 8 ultrasonic sensors, five LiDAR sensors, six specialized cameras, and a satellite positioning system.
We’ve already seen the company race two of its DevBot test prototypes (which ended with one of them crashing) and push the pace up to 200 km/h (124 mph) in its first full speed lap on a track. The Robocar has thus far only been let loose for a low-speed demo in Paris, since there’s still plenty of work to be done and data to be collected before we’ll see the full-speed racing experience. But this weekend marks the first time the American public will see it up close.
Instead of focusing on a self-driving system that will work on public roads, Roborace has created a fine-tuned racing machine specifically for the track. The project brings a very different set of challenges to driverless software controling the vehicle, which, when solved, could translate to breakthroughs and innovations that will eventually be used in commercial vehicles you see on public roads.
Roborace’s overall mission is based on Sverdlov’s vision for the future of transportation. He envisions a driverless, electric, and connected auto experience, and considers his company a major promoter for the next-gen automotive tech, even for cars driving off the racetrack.
“The race format pushes the boundaries of [various] technologies, which allows Roborace to be the [development] and marketing platform for real things that will eventually be adopted in road cars,” he told Mashable. “We’re promoting the future of autonomous cars, too. We believe that when people see the Robocars performing in extreme conditions, they’ll be able to accept them on the roads.”
Sverdlov said he’s excited to show off the car in Times Square and hopefully pique the public’s interest in autonomous cars. If the small crowd that gathered around the Robocar in my short time in the rain is any indication, the trip has been effective so far in that regard.
Daniel Simon, who has experience creating the futuristic worlds of Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, and most recently, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, designed the Robocar. He faced some unique challenges bringing his eye-popping Robocar design to life in a high-performance race car with self-driving capabilities.
Simon and his team had to account for aerodynamics, battery performance, and cooling, and the four-wheel drive system, all while trying to make it look cool.
“I’m not a racer, but I’m hyper-passionate about motorsport,” he said. “I could bring it to 80 percent of what we need, but the other 20 brought some beautiful challenges.”
Keeping turbulence levels down and making the cars sturdy so on-track bumps don’t result in disaster were major considerations for the design, because the Robocars will eventually be jockeying for position in competition.
Simon sees a future where the Robocars’ designs will take on their own character, too, taking inspiration from the morning’s otherwise dreary weather.
“Imagine the cars having gestures, organic reactions to how they perform. Seeing it here in the rain now almost gives me the idea that they should sweat, or breathe somehow — there’s so much more potential that we can dig into than if we had a person in the car.”
That development potential is seemingly limitless in other regards, most notably the way Sverdlov says the company offers the Robocar as a platform for others in the self-driving scene. Roborace built the car, but the teams participating in the series — which might come from backgrounds as diverse as automakers, tech companies, and universities — will ultimately be tasked with making them run on the track.
“The format itself needs to be flexible enough to help teams that are participating in the series develop their skills. Of course we want to see something like 10 cars on the track racing, but we don’t have the technology yet. It’ll probably take two or three years to get there.”
That development comes in the form of both real world testing and computer simulations of the self-driving algorithms. Sverdlov calls it a “competition of intelligence,” since it will inevitably be software that is driving the race cars rather than humans.
Roborace will hit the ePrix track this weekend in New York, and we’ll be seeing the Robocar on the track again in the near future. But even if the cars aren’t at the point where they can compete against each other just yet, Sverdlov is happy with the progress they’ve made.
“The series will show where autonomous technology is today,” he said. “But what’s important isn’t where it is today. What’s important is how fast it can develop. For me, even if it’s just going [30 mph], it’s a miracle. There’s no human [driver] — just a brain and sensors working with itself, becoming even better.”