Racing into the future

Meet the Robocar, designed to race without a driver and help fast-track the development of autonomous, connected and electric technology

10 electric race cars on a track. As the lights turn green, five of them charge clockwise around the circuit, while the other five surge off in the opposite direction. Reaching speeds of up to 200mph, they meet at a tight corner halfway round the track. But the dreaded prospect of a massive pile-up doesn’t materialise. Elegantly dodging each other, the machines avoid collision at breathtaking speeds by mere millimetres.

What sounds like madness may well become reality in the not-too-distant future. That’s because the race cars are self-driving. As well as providing a spectacular race series for autonomously driven cars, which will run in support of the FIA Formula E all-electric single-seater race series in which Audi competes, the Banbury-based Roborace is also aiming to develop road-car technology. ‘Roborace rests on three developmental pillars: electric mobility, networking technologies and autonomous driving,’ explains chief strategy officer Bryn Balcombe. With no space for a driver, the team’s Robocars, as they are known, exude an eerie, almost alien-like sentient vibe. It’s as if they have been built in a galaxy far, far away – not 50 miles down the motorway from Birmingham.

Does all this spell the end for human racing drivers? Not according to Audi Sport Formula E driver, reigning series champion and Roborace CEO Lucas di Grassi. 

‘While Roborace will never replace motorsport, we still need a racing series to push the technological envelope with regard to autonomous driving, networking and electric vehicles,’ explains di Grassi. ‘The Robocar is perfect for that. It’s so advanced, it easily outpaces average drivers, so it’s only a matter of time before it’ll beat a professional race driver. There’s a physical limit to how fast the human eye can relay information to the brain and the brain can pass on instructions to the hands or feet. And that applies to the world’s best drivers. Computers are already capable of responding 200 times faster than a human.’

Di Grassi believes Roborace will help make the world a safer place too, because its development of connected, autonomous technology will reduce the number of road accidents. ‘There are no limits to what we can achieve with Roborace. And, best of all, there’s no danger to human life in the process. In this way, the technology can keep on evolving and improving until it’s fully matured. If it works, great. If it doesn’t and there’s a crash – well, that’s a financial loss, but no one gets hurt.’

The Robocar uses an array of cameras, GPS, lidar and ultrasonic sensors to find its way around a racetrack. It also uses graphic processing power provided by NVIDIA, which has been a partner of Audi for over a decade. The car’s battery generates a maximum output of up to 655kW (almost 900PS). Considering its weight of roughly 1000kg, that gives the vehicle a top speed of almost 190mph. An electric motor is fitted to each of the four wheels so the torque-vectoring effect ensures better grip and improved stability – a system comparable with Audi’s e-quattro technology. As a result, the Robocar can produce a variable torque output of up to 300Nm at each wheel, which helps it achieve lap times that are currently two seconds faster than those of a Formula E racing car.