The Most Advanced Car at Formula E Isn't Built for People

Is the future of racing driverless?
July 18, 2017, 7:55pm
Daniel Simon in front of the Robocar. Image: Ankita Rao

Last weekend I attended Formula E's NYC ePrix—an electric car race meant to showcase new technology and innovation through sport. There were cars made by Audi, Jaguar, Virgin, and others made by startups.

But one of the cars was not like the others.

The Robocar is an autonomous electric race car developed by Roborace, a company that combines automotive technology and artificial intelligence. The model it displayed on a platform in the Formula E "village" was possibly the sleekest design at the event. But it doesn't have a driver, or any space for a human being.

Advertisement

The Robocar includes 15 ultrasonic sensors, six visual AI cameras, and a sensitive GPS used by the Navy. "It looks like it's sculpted by the wind," Roborace's chief design officer Daniel Simon told me as we looked closely at his design. "It looks fast and animalistic, it goes away from the classic automobile. It has more in common with an aircraft than a car."

As advanced as the Robocar is, I couldn't help wonder if it could be called a car.

Simon told me its battery power was four times that of the other electric cars at Formula E, because it has a more advanced and larger battery. Batteries tend to be the biggest limiting factor in bringing electric cars to the road. And the car has a system for cooling its batteries and computer within, so that the technology isn't disrupted by heat during driving.

As advanced as the Robocar is, I couldn't help wonder if it could be called a car. The fact that it doesn't transport anybody made me wonder if the technology fit in with the other vehicles that weekend—which, despite additional flaws, still moved actual people. "You can't even put a hamster in there right now," Simon told me of the Robocar.

Did this massive shift signal a new future not just for electric cars, but for the sport of car racing? A future in which drivers don't exist at all?

The company's CEO Denis Sverdlov sees it differently, he wants the car to inform the future of transport. And the models' technology could help add to the compendium of data on autonomous and electric vehicle, part of the reason Formula E exists. He also disagrees on the definition of a driver.

"It's not a driverless car, it has an AI driver," Sverdlov told me in the company's garage at Formula E. He said he sees the Robocar as a "she" and envisions future autonomous cars as having different AI personalities. And the more autonomous it becomes, he believes, the safer it is—eliminating the human error that causes crashes and automobile deaths across the world. Meanwhile, Simon, who has worked as a consultant on sci-fi movies like Tron and Star Wars, said even as automotive technology advances, people need to see some traditional car features to connect to the vehicle. A steering wheel, for example, is comforting, even if slowly becomes obsolete, like in the case of a Robocar.

Read More: Driving Is Social. Autonomous Cars Aren't

Roborace didn't race the Robocar at Formula E, where all of the competing vehicles were operated by human drivers, and the car seems to be more of an experiment than anything else. But at the end of the day, the Robocar is also the symbol of transport that excludes humans altogether. And that's something worth defining as the lines become increasingly blurry.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.