Driverless cars and Le Mans

Spacesuit Media Shivraj Gohil FIA WEC Silverstone 2016 Grid at sunset

Since the announcement of Roborace (Formula E’s planned support series for autonomous vehicles) in November last year, the idea of a championship without drivers has suddenly dawned on motorsport. While purists maintain that racing needs some element of human involvement, it cannot be denied that driverless cars are shaping up to become an increasingly important part of motoring’s future, whether we like it or not.

Formula E is so far the only global racing category to welcome a driverless competition. Yet, as Roborace prepares to join Formula E’s undercard, it seems we could one day soon see autonomous vehicles racing ahead of a fellow FIA event focused on efficiency and advanced powertrains: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. A driverless safety car for the famous endurance race has even been mooted. Here’s the current situation.

Le Mans has long promoted new technologies in racing. Since 2012, in particular, its “Garage 56” slot has allowed for entries with innovative developments that are outside the technical regulations. We’ve already seen the rather awesome Nissan Deltawing debut thanks to the provision; in 2016, the place will be taken by Frederic Sausset, a quadruple amputee, who will race a modified Morgan Nissan in the LMP2 class. Next year, a biomethane-powered car could run. So could Le Mans ever see driverless cars on track?

The question was put to Pierre Fillon, president of ACO, the organiser of Le Mans, at the recent Spa six hour WEC race. While Fillon said that it was unlikely an autonomous car would be considered for a Garage 56 entry to compete alongside human drivers, he was receptive to the idea of autonomous vehicles taking to the tarmac in a support race, similar to Formula E’s introduction of the concept.

“For me, Le Mans is a human adventure,” Fillon said. “So without human drivers, for me it’s not Le Mans. For the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we want to keep the drivers. But autonomous vehicles are important. The idea is maybe to have an autonomous race before the 24 hours, like a support race. Maybe you can imagine an autonomous car for a safety car. But for sure, for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we want to keep drivers.”

A driverless safety car would seem to be a fairly straightforward introduction. There are already several full autonomous track cars which have proved they can navigate tracks fast, lap after lap. As safety car, there’s no racing to worry about, just the racing line. It could dovetail with the full course yellow procedure very well.

ACO global sports director Vincent Beaumesnil added that, although the ACO has not spoken with Roborace regarding autonomous racing, it is keeping a close eye on developments: “We have to evaluate. For the autonomous car, we are looking at anyway to improve it in the future. For the moment, we have not spoken to the people of Roborace but we are informed on what is going on with this technology.”

Even with drivers still racing themselves, Fillon doubts that a fully-electric car will race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the near future due to the endurance nature of the event. However, zero emissions racing remains a target for the ACO, as advanced by the recent push towards hybrid cars in the LMP1 class.

“I would say not fully electric but zero emissions,” Fillon said. “For us, fully electric, you have a lot of problems with the battery. An electric battery is very good for cities, but not very good for motorway. Our idea is to make rules that lure technologies with zero emissions. We began with the hybrid Audi at Le Mans. As you know, we introduced new rules in 2014 with the hybrid. We reduced the consumption of fuel by 30% in one year (with the same speed and keeping a car very efficient with high performance, because you need to have a spectacle). It was a first step. We will continue to improve the hybrid systems in the next three years and be open to new technologies. You have electricity, you have hydrology, you have lots of new technologies. But the idea is to go to zero emissions.”

Even with their different approaches, the ground shared by Formula E and WEC will make it fascinating to see how both series develop in the coming years, and the wider impact they have on motorsport and motoring in general. And if an autonomous safety car arrives, you heard it here first.

Luke Smith

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