The march of Artificial intelligence (AI) is disrupting industries across all sectors, and so it is inevitable this technology has found its way to one of the world’s foremost proponents of automotive innovation – Formula 1.
Renault and Williams are using machine learning and analytics to help them make the best decisions on strategy during races as well as using AI to build their cars. And Honda have turned to IBM’s Watson IoT for Automotive to analyse the hybrid engines they supply to Toro Rosso.
These are still early days for AI and Formula 1, but with car manufacturers already testing autonomous vehicles (AVs) on our roads, the question is whether motorsports’ premier series will eventually take the driverless car route.
“The weakest link of any machine operating at high speeds is the human being,” says former Petronas racing team chief engineer Peter Ho. “If you were to make an autonomous racing car driven by AI, you could in theory out-manoeuvre a driver piloting an F1 car.”
Ho – currently founder and CEO of Singapore-based AI engineering firm HOPE Technik – says Formula 1 has thrived since its inception in 1950 by positioning itself at the forefront of automotive innovation.
“F1 is the pinnacle of technology,” he says. “The amount they spend per gram, per cubic centimetre, per minute on technology, I don’t think there are other industries that can come even close to them.”
But as the development of AVs becomes the new driving force in the automotive industry, can Formula 1 remain relevant without fundamentally changing the way its cars race? Are we likely to see a starting grid of driverless Formula 1 cars in the not too distant future?
Peter Ho has reservations, “There is the issue on how to communicate with an AV race car on track and ask it to stop in an emergency... Humans, fortunately, are able to operate in an unknown environment and make intuitive decisions. That’s where humans still have the edge.”
Another obstacle Formula 1 faces along the road to autonomous racing cars is the hardware – the amount of energy required to power AI engines at top racing speeds is enormous.
“If you want to run an AI engine on an F1 car, you probably have to double your engine size just to have enough electrical power to fire the processor,” says Ho. “So, we need a paradigm change in our electronics before AI can have the ability to do this.”
This paradigm change is already well underway in Formula E – the electric street racing championship – where the Roborace series will eventually see self-driving cars race against one another at speeds of up to 199 mph.
Powered by an AI platform which can perform around 320 million operations per second, these supercars are confined to the demonstration circuit for now but Roborace CEO and 2016-17 Formula E Champion Lucas di Grassi is clear on his vision of the future of motorsports:
“We want to take Roborace where motorsport cannot go, focusing the platform on future road-relevant autonomous technology,” he said in a recent interview, “The future of mobility is autonomous, that’s an industry consensus now.”
Certainly, as motorsport grapples with the challenge of appealing to new and younger audiences, the absence of drivers allows developers to shift their focus away from driver safety towards achieving greater speeds and more thrilling track manoeuvres.
But motorsport governing body the FIA appears resolved that in Formula 1 at least, the drivers themselves are key to engaging fans and sustaining popularity.
There may be a driverless safety car in the championship’s future however. Marcin Budkowski, the head of the FIA's F1 technical department, suggested in a recent interview that such a development would be an effective way of promoting innovation and retaining the all-important human element of the Formula 1 show.
"It would promote a technology about which there is a bit of scepticism and, instead, it could be shown that it works. The safety car driver would no longer be essential, because it would leave the controls to the computer. But we must be aware of the attraction of [F1] race cars without drivers: the engineers would love it, but not the fans."
 Digital Trends - Roborace self-driving race car gets an upgrade, but when will it actually race? - April 2018
 motor1.com - Formula E champion di Grassi becomes Roborace CEO - September 2017
 CNN - Can motorsport still be exciting without human drivers? - March 2018
 Autosport - Formula 1's safety car could become driverless, says FIA - August 2017
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