Roborace Could Force Driverless Car Tech Companies to Race for Profits

The spiritual successor to DARPA's Grand Challenge will get interesting when the stakes get genuinely high.

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Driverless cars have migrated from California ‘burbs to Sweden to the circuit, which they’re set to take over in 2016. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile and investment company Kinetik recently announced Roborace, an automated version of Formula E, itself a relatively new, electric-motor take on Formula 1. The reveal was light on details, but the concept should intrigue even non-race faces for one simple reason: The automobile hardware will be the same for each team. That means Roboracing is ultimately about algorithms and AI. The race tracks will be just that, but they’ll also be proving grounds. For potential fans, that means a chance to root, in a very literal sense, for technological progress — and maybe also some tech firms.

Shaya Raymond, a PR representative for Kinetik, told Inverse he couldn’t provide any information on competitors or algorithms and a follow-up query about eligibility went unanswered. Who Roborace allows to compete bakes in tension from the start: Is there an upstart group of MIT students trying to take on the automotive goliaths of BMW or Volvo? Will we see an Alphabet logo branded on carbon and aluminum, or will Google remain focused on taking consumers around the block at a durdlingly safe 25 mph?

What we do know constitutes the nuts and bolts of the competition.

There will be 10 teams, two cars apiece, and hour-long races. The vehicles, in theory, could race at speeds faster than deemed safe for humans, because there’s less immediate risk when nobody’s behind the wheel. Is the promise of speedier cars enough to trigger our base human interests? Well, the racing audience is fickle.

Attendance at NASCAR, which stumbled through the Great Recession and never quite recovered, is falling; Formula 1 remains popular globally, but fewer viewers are tuning in each year. Can automated Formula E provide that resuscitating spark? Racing fans are skeptical, with some voicing their concerns that it’s tough to get stoked about code. In a recent blog post, professional Formula 1 commentator Jack Nicholls argues that “what motorsport is ultimately about, and what Formula E never fails to illustrate, is the importance of the insanely talented human you stick behind the wheel.”

Because human creatures enjoy televised human drama, to have any shot at success Roborace will have to play up the minds behind the algorithms. This was why even early-aught robot competition shows like BattleBots tried to make the bot operators important, with quip-ish intros and frequent cuts to furrowed brows on the sidelines. Until our androids get better showboating AI, robot competitors make for dull spectating. (Here’s 10 hours of androids staring at doors in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge.) That means that we need programming talent and presumably that said programming talent will — this being car racing — need sponsors. And that’s where the rubber hits the road because driverless car algorithm specialist aren’t having trouble finding jobs these days. Wouldn’t it make sense for companies to sponsor their own employees? At that point, won’t this thing just be a race between corporations?

Past is precedent.

What Roborace has going for it is that driverless cars have a rich history of competition. To hear Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag tell it, the precursor electric race was created out of the desire to show off the viability and enhance the future of electric cars as much as it was to create an adjunct competition fans could care about. This sentiment echoes through Roborace’s origin story — it’s a showcase for technology and meant to drive of innovation. Pitting AI against AI for prestige and money is a proven way to produce results; you can trace the origins of the Google driverless car back to DARPA’s desert races in 2004 and 2005.

Although DARPA’s Grand Challenges have their loyal and enthusiastic spectators, the organization ultimately cares about technology that can be used in the service of the military and public, not advertising revenue. Might FIA and Kinetik see Roborace fans as only part of the picture — witnesses to winning algorithms that will ultimately be spun into their own investments? Sure, but it also might provide a critical forum for tech companies to sell something customers can’t see or, at least in a specific sense, understand. Even if we can’t discern the best driverless car tech by looking at it, we can tell who won a race.

We like winners. The remaining question is whether or not corporations like fair fights.