Ever wondered what it’s like to ride in a driverless car? How about a driverless race car zooming around the Silverstone Circuit at high speed?
Well that’s what I did this week, and I can tell you it feels a lot like a rollercoaster … until you remember that there are no tracks, and the only thing stopping you from ploughing into the stands is a bunch of sensors and a little on-board computer.
My Silverstone experience was courtesy of British start-up company Roborace – makers of the world’s fastest autonomous racing car.
The vehicle that holds the Guinness World Record, with a top speed of 282.42kph (175.49mph), is a fully self-driving race car called Robocar, which is also the first vehicle to complete the hill-climb at Goodwood Festival of Speed entirely autonomously.
But Robocar has no cockpit for a human driver, so Roborace has another vehicle called DevBot 2.0, which uses the same artificial intelligence technology as Robocar but includes a passenger seat, steering wheel and pedals.
I did two laps of the Silverstone Circuit – the first driving myself, which turned out to be rather eventful when I took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong part of the track, and the second letting the AI take the wheel.
While I’m a naturally cautious driver, the AI has no fear and waits until what feels like the last possible moment before braking, resulting in a hair-raising experience going around corners.
However, I was surprised at how safe I felt during the AI lap – despite the disconcerting sight of the steering wheel turning itself in front of me.
This might be because the speed was capped at 100kph (60mph), but it was also an extremely smooth ride, and it was clear that every turn had been calculated with mathematical precision.
Like the driverless cars being developed by the likes of Google and Uber over in California, Roborace’s vehicles use LIDARs, radars, AI cameras, ultrasonic sensors, optical speed sensors and GNSS positioning to drive themselves.
They also run Nvidia’s Drive PX2 AI car computing software, which essentially acts as the “brain” of the car, enabling it to interpret all the information from the sensors.
Roborace hopes to accelerate the development of autonomous software and contribute to the broader driverless car revolution by pushing the technology to its limits in a range of controlled environments.
Earlier this year, for example, the company announced a collaboration with VW Data:Lab and Italdesign to test emergency braking and obstacle avoidance path planning.
“We can get to technology gains far quicker by challenging ourselves in harder environments,” Paul Andrews, Senior Partnership Development Manager at Roborace, told Mirror Online.
“And with the move next year to Millbrook, where we’ll be based on a proving ground, we’ll have day-after-day testing. So we’ll get that technology transfered to the industry far quicker.”
Stephen Sidlo, Head of Digital at Roborace, added: “It’s important that we’re seen within that consumer world, but we’re at the frontier.
“Your Teslas and your Waymos are limited by traffic lights, and mothers with strollers slowing down development progress. We don’t have any of that, so we can push it as far and as quick as possible, which is the whole mantra.”
However, the company’s primary focus is on entertainment – using new and exciting formats to showcase the potential of autonomous driving and help build public trust, confidence and demand for the technology.
One aspect of this is wheel-to-wheel racing and other competitions, where teams of software engineers use code to gain a competitive advantage on the track.
“One of the targets for this year was to have an overtaking move, which we achieved quite early in the season,” said Andrews.
“So these robots aren’t just processing around a track – they have this racing instinct and they actually want to win.”
However, Roborace is also exploring digital forms of entertainment, working with prominent gaming engines like Twitch to meld autonomous motorsport and online gaming.
“It’s a new sport, a completely new sport, where you’re able to interact with it,” said Sidlo.
“You’re sat home with your family, you’re watching television, you have the Robocar in a live environment somewhere else; you’re able to interact with that car, to make it move or move an object in front of the car.
“So that whole immersive sport experience is the direction that we want to go in. We’re going to call it ‘Metaverse’ and it’s going to be the first time that we’re going to meld an actual live environment sport with what we’re doing here.
“It’s going to open so many doors to other areas – heavy on the AR, heavy on the VR, heavy on the live production; content that comes from an influencer base within eSports, gaming and entertainment all the way through to traditional motorsport.”