Combine a 150-year-old invention (the automobile) with a fast-growing, emerging technology (driverless cars), and you have a recipe for reducing accidents, taking reckless drunk drivers off the roads, easing congestion, and lowering demand for large, resource-intensive vehicles.
But occasionally, that progress seems slow. Literally.
Take Alphabet Inc.’s (GOOGL) autonomous car development, for example. The company is doing great work, but the car is tiny, limited, and occasionally goes so slow, it even gets a ticket! And it’s not commercially available yet.
Many major automakers are developing driverless cars. Chief among them is Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA). Its autonomous cars can move faster – at highway speeds – but are very limited in what they can do without humans to guide them.
Of the various other driverless cars out there, they’re either still in development or testing, or are geared more towards publicity than any near-term applications.
So the idea of racing them is crazy, right?
Not so much…
From Formula E to Formula “Robo”
If you’re a racing fan, you’re no doubt familiar with the likes of Formula 1, IndyCar, and NASCAR.
But a new discipline of the sport is emerging – Formula E.
It’s a worldwide racing league featuring all-electric cars, which run on a track of roughly two miles for about 50 minutes. The tracks are street-style with many twists and turns, not the NASCAR-style ovals. Each team has two cars, since refueling an electric car is a lengthy process, compared to fueling a gas-powered car.
And far from being a gimmick, it’s beginning to catch on, thanks to strong marketing and the presence of racing legends such as Alain Prost, who owns a team and whose son drives for him.
Indeed, the next strand is already underway – RoboRace.
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As the name suggests, RoboRace involves fully autonomous cars. No overall-and-helmet-clad drivers required.
It will be an adjunct to Formula E – and it’s coming next year.
Using the same track as Formula E, 10 teams with two physically identical cars will compete by programming their cars to see which one runs the quickest off the battery – and without running off the course or hitting other cars, of course.
There are even plans for one of the cars to be “crowd-sourced” – i.e., racing fans will have an opportunity to play a part in how a car operates.
But once the green flag falls, that’s it – no humans allowed.
Will Humans Watch Racing Between No Humans?
As these cars get better over time, RoboRace envisions them hitting speeds up to 186 MPH – far faster than Formula E cars and even comparable to speeds on the top gasoline-based racing circuits.
But who will these races attract?
Well, while the team behind RoboRace – an English venture capital firm called Kinetik – hasn’t announced partners for creating these race cars yet – you can bet it will be a “who’s who” of the driverless car world.
And the races will give analysts, auto executives, and investors a look at the best autonomous car technology stretched to its absolute limits – something that we haven’t seen up to now.
But what about racing fans less invested in the technology? Will people line up to see a race with no drivers?
Well, any race fan will tell you that he watches the race for the high speed, thrilling overtaking maneuvers, and the human drama. But will that still be true when the only humans experiencing the drama are in sky boxes, well away from any danger?
That’s less certain. Imagine an NFL game between robots. Would anyone care if the New England ‘Bots beat the Green Bay ‘Bots?
Fortunately, RoboRace will have an opportunity to develop a following.
Its races are being planned for the same day and same track as Formula E. Much like boxing, it will function as kind of an opening act for the main event with human drivers and watchable with the same ticket.
And with the tech angle, it shouldn’t be difficult to generate enough sponsorship money. Maybe even Google will be interested.
RoboRace is scheduled to begin with the 2016-17 season of Formula E, and if this year’s schedule is typical, there should be an autonomous race in the United States in April 2017.
To living and investing in the future,