Autonomous racing cars: coming soon to a track near you?

Current E Shiv Gohil Punta del Este 2014 Salvador Duran on track at shakedown

Formula E’s new full course yellow (FCY) system presents an opportunity to investigate the application of new technologies, such as autonomous cars, says one team boss.

The FCY system is similar to the virtual safety car feature used in Formula 1. When activated by the race director, the system introduces a mandatory 50kph (31mph) speed limit around the circuit as well as a requirement for drivers to maintain their distance from each other.

Team Aguri boss Mark Preston believes the sport could go a step further and introduce autonomous technology under FCY scenarios. “Motorsport is a great testing ground and I see Formula E as a prototyping competition for autonomous vehicles and other technologies,” he explains. 

Autonomous automotive technology has been evolving rapidly in recent years and has barely been out of the public eye. Leading car manufacturers and technology companies including Google and Apple are exploring its commercial potential. Electric car maker Tesla and internet giant Google plan to have self-driving cars on the market by 2020. Safety, fuel efficiency and making better use of road space are key ideas behind the tech, which chimes with the ethos of Formula E.

So how would it work in Formula E? Such a system could be as simple as a remote speed limiter, which would be activated under the FCY from race control. Drivers would remain in full control of their vehicles but would simply be unable to exceed the speed limit. Such a system could be used in the pit lane, too. In both instances, the system would increase safety by enforcing the lower speed across the course simultaneously. 

A more advanced configuration could see the cars actually drive themselves completely, following a pre-programmed line and lap delta devised by the FIA, or even one devised in real-time to avoid on-track debris. With the series keen to introduce wireless charging loops buried off the racing line in the track, the cars could change recharge themselves under the programme too. This solution would be much harder to introduce with the varying powertrains in use, probably requiring additional sensors and systems to assure driver safety. Still, it’s an exciting prospect that shows how many within Formula E are thinking far beyond what is conventionally possible in a racing car.

“Formula E is a great place to experiment and showcase new ideas and bring them to the attention of the world in a controlled environment where people can gain confidence that they are safe,” Preston goes on. “In this respect, FCY scenarios would present the perfect opportunity to introduce such technologies.”

Team Aguri has formed a partnership with the MobOx Foundation – a “living laboratory” in Oxford – to better to understand where such inventions first enter daily life and how the potential of novel technologies such autonomous vehicles can be fulfilled.

If such tech did make it into the sport, could we see racing teams from Google and Apple?

Tom Spencer

1 Comment

  • Christopher Fallows says:

    i can understand the role of F-e in showcasing and proving new ideas, but if there is a remote speed limiter, why not a remote accelerator? Why would you need a driver?……………. Oops I may just have reinvented Scalextric !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *