World’s First Race of A.I.-Driven Cars Was Filled With Spins, Swerves and Stops

Though the cars could not compare to human drivers, the event may help improve self-driving technology, experts say

Two driverless race cars, one green (foreground) and one red (background) speed down a straight on the Yas Marina circuit.
The driverless race cars were controlled with cameras, advanced processing units and sensors. Waleed Zein / Anadolu via Getty Images

The world of driverless cars hit a unique milestone last weekend in a first-of-its-kind race in Dubai.

At first glance, the eight competing, turbocharged vehicles—complete with a six-speed gearbox and 550 horsepower—resembled a usual suite of racing cars. And yet, they had no cockpits, instead featuring cameras, computers and sensors where a driver normally would sit. Machine learning software tracked the cars’ tire and brake temperatures and controlled steering, shifting, accelerating, braking and overtaking.

Rather than a race driver’s expertise and instinct, it was international teams’ skill in producing complex, A.I.-powered vehicles that was put to the test. The event, the inaugural competition of the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL), took place in Dubai’s Yas Marina Circuit, a track known as the annual host of a Formula One Grand Prix.

By most accounts, it wasn’t the smoothest launch. Just four cars qualified for the final, and the competition proceeded with a few spins, some herky-jerky movements, a stranded car and a crash into a wall. In all, it took the vehicles about an hour to complete eight laps around the roughly 3.3-mile track, reports the Verge’s Wes Davis.

In another stunt that pitted A.I. against a human driver, the former Formula One driver Daniil Kvyat easily finished first.

“We are exploring a huge uncharted space right now,” Giovanni Pau, one of the team principals and the technical director of Abu Dhabi’s Technical Innovation Institute, tells Motor Sport Magazine’s Cambridge Kisby. “This technology is today at its infancy. It’s like a baby that was born yesterday, starting to put the first footsteps.”

Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

While the race may not have been riveting entertainment—according to Motor Sport Magazine, thousands of spectators left early—proponents remain optimistic about the technology. The competition’s objectives—to promote STEM education among students, showcase the potential of autonomous vehicles and refine technologies that can be used more practically on public streets—reach beyond the race track.

“The Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League is all about road safety,” Tom McCarthy, executive director of ASPIRE, part of the Abu Dhabi government’s Advanced Technology Research Council, tells New Scientist’s David Stock. “We believe that there is opportunity for leveraging the technology that has been developed in autonomous robotics and A.I. to develop the co-piloting capability that we can put into road cars that will prevent accidents occurring.”

In the United States, the era of autonomous driving has already begun, to an extent. Cruise, an autonomous “robotaxi” service in San Francisco, had its license to operate revoked last October following a “horrific” incident in which a driverless vehicle hit and dragged a pedestrian 20 feet, after she was hit by a human-driven car. The company had only been operating at around-the-clock capacity for two months when the accident occurred, and California’s Department of Motor Vehicles said Cruise had misrepresented the safety information of its robotaxis. Other self-driving car companies, such as Waymo, still operate on the city’s streets.

The public’s skepticism about autonomous vehicles remains high, while the number of self-driving cars on public roads is projected to grow. Per an American Automobile Association survey released in March, 66 percent of Americans express “fear” and 25 percent express “uncertainty” toward the technology.

An engineer in a white shirt types on a laptop that rests on the nose of a red autonomous driving race car.
Completing an eight-lap competition around the racetrack, the cars had no cockpit nor driver; algorithms and machine learning software, created by international teams, influenced the vehicles' movements. Giuseppe CACACE / AFP via Getty Images

Tesla is among the most high-profile companies in the U.S. with autonomous driving capabilities. Its automated driver assistance system, called Autopilot, has been linked to hundreds of crashes, with some occurring after two million of its vehicles were recalled in December. Meanwhile, the company’s “supervised Full Self Driving” software subscription upgrade is currently available to Tesla owners for $99 per month, and earlier this week, founder Elon Musk received regulatory approvals to bring self-driving technologies to China.

For those who are bullish on the technology, last weekend’s driverless race, despite its hiccups, remains an important sign of progress.

“More than just a technological showcase, autonomous racing is a critical research frontier,” wrote Madhur Behl, a computer scientist at the University of Virginia, in the Conversation in February. “When autonomous systems can reliably function in these extreme conditions, they inherently possess a buffer when operating in the ordinary conditions of street traffic.”

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