Dec 20 (Reuters) - Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina circuit, scene of last month's Formula One season-ender, will be a testing ground over the coming weeks for a racecar driven by software algorithms rather than any human hand.
The driverless Dallara Super Formula SF23 open-wheel cars, capable of hitting speeds of 300 kilometres per hour (186 miles per hour), have a computer in place of the cockpit and no need for a steering wheel, seat, pedals or protective halo.
The cars are the stars of the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) which is set to hold its inaugural race at the grand prix circuit on April 28, 2024, with a prize fund of $2.25 million.
Ten single-car teams will be involved in year one but organisers accept the science is not yet there for all to race together at speed.
"We know that two (driverless) cars can race well on a track together, what we’ll be pushing to see is can you achieve an outcome where three or four cars are racing competitively against each other?" Dr. Tom McCarthy, executive director of operating company ASPIRE, told Reuters.
"We’re at the frontiers of science on this one. If we got to a point that 10 cars are racing (together) within the next five years I think that would be a huge achievement.
"We see ourselves on a development path, we see a time in the future where you’ll have as many cars lining up on the grid for an autonomous race as a Formula One race, but that’s not going to happen today or tomorrow."
ASPIRE is part of an Advanced Technology Research Council established by Abu Dhabi three years ago with the aim of leveraging technology to help diversify the oil-rich emirate's economy.
Driverless racing has been attempted before, with the all-electric Formula E series planning a 'Roborace' series as far back as 2015.
A 'race' between two cars at speeds of up to 185 kph, using sensors and on-board systems to navigate a Buenos Aires street circuit, was held in 2017 but one machine still crashed.
Some of those involved then are now with A2RL, but this time the cars use petrol engines.
"I think one of the great audience draws at a track is the bang and the noise of an internal combustion engine. I think it’s going to be around with us for a while," said McCarthy.
A manned prototype has been used in testing, with former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat giving it a run in Dubai last month. Japan-based Super Formula is the second fastest series in the world after Formula One.
The driverless teams will use identical cars run by universities and elite institutions in Asia, Europe and the U.S. but each can adapt software algorithms.
The car is completely autonomous and the only human intervention, once the race starts, is a 'kill switch' to shut it down.
If the first race is a "proof of concept", a future calendar could expand to three races with tracks in Europe and Asia added to Yas. ASPIRE also has plans for autonomous drone racing and races with off-road buggies and boats.
"What we would like to see is the OEMs (manufacturers) come to us and say can you do A, B or C as a challenge? And then design the race format in such a way that it tests this challenge that they have," said McCarthy.
A maximum of 10,000 tickets will be sold at nominal prices for the April race but the focus is online and the virtual reality potential.
McCarthy said autonomous racing, with its focus on mobility and safety applications for road cars, posed no threat to conventional series.
"I would hate us to be classified as the people that want to drive the person out of the car for sport. I think it would be crazy to do that and in fact I would hate to see it happening," he said.
"I think people will always want to see racing as a human endeavour."
Source : reuters.com