In this September 12, 2014, picture, Chinese workers look at engineers moving a Mahindra Racing car as they prepare for the upcoming Formula E Championship race in Beijing. (Reuters)
Imagine a motor race where the cars drive themselves from the garage to starting grid and then park up, ready for the drivers to jump in.
Sounds like science fiction? Not for Alejandro Agag, the chief executive of the Formula E electric series whose latest brainchild is an entirely driverless championship to be known as ‘Roborace’.
If the Spaniard concedes that robot racing is not sport as the world knows it, he believes the technology could also find a home in more conventional competition—and maybe not in the too distant future.
“Maybe...(Formula E) cars could drive themselves to the starting grid and the drivers can just walk and do interviews on the way,” Agag told Reuters when asked about potential crossover between Roborace and his main series.
“I think that is a transfer we could organise quite soon, actually,” he added.
“I kind of just came up with it but...the cars could just go and place themselves on the grid and then we start the race. This is the kind of technology every car will have in the future,” he added.
Agag, an entrepreneur whose office in Hammersmith, West London, overlooks a particularly traffic-choked part of the capital, is a big fan of ‘disruptive’ technology that changes the existing order.
He also likes to think out loud, the conversation free-wheeling from the dawn of classical civilisation to the realms of science fiction, but his series has pushed boundaries from the start.
The ‘Roborace’ concept was conceived less than two months ago when Agag flew back from Beijing with Denis Sverdlov, founder of investment fund Kinetik.
It was unveiled last month as a proposed support package for Formula E’s 2016-17 season, with 10 teams each fielding two identical all-electric cars in hour-long races.
Every ‘car’ will have a name, so that fans—and particularly gamers—can engage even without the human element.
For those who say robot racing is a long way from sport, Agag can only concur.
“This is a competition of technology which is not necessarily motorsport or sport at all. Sport is Formula E. Driverless racing is probably not sport,” he said.
“People will always want to see drivers racing. Driverless is never the end of motorsport. Motorsport will always be there. From the Roman times, or before, we’ve been watching humans racing each other.”
Driverless technology is, however, a major focus for manufacturers and others such as Google and Apple.
“Formula E wants to be where the industry is going. This is one of the places where the industry is going and we want to add value to the industry,” said Agag.
The Spaniard recognised, however, that the technology was still only 90 percent complete.
“I think we can have a prototype ready in September (2016), so we will do testing...in October, November and December and then start producing in January and you can have 10 or 20 cars by end of March and do the first race in April (2017),” he said.
“This car is more or less going to be like a skateboard. So you have a flat battery in the floor, four motors - one on each wheel - and that’s it.
“It may not look like a car. But cars of the future may not look like cars. Or the cars today won’t look like cars of the future,” he added.
The driverless cars will be truly autonomous, reacting to rivals through sensors and guided by radar or satellite positioning. Once out of the garage, they are on their own.
Agag said tests conducted by Audi, who compete in Formula E, had shown already that driverless cars could be a match for anything driven.
“The driverless car, one car on its own, now can go faster than any driver because it takes the corners exactly at the maximum limit and calculates with the computer,” he said.
“When you have another 10 cars, you crash. Because you don’t know where the other cars are. So the difficulty here is to create a system that can recognise where the other cars are and beat them, overtake and so on.
“It’s going to take time,” said Agag. “Probably in the first race a lot of cars will crash against each other.”
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