November – December 2017

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Man vs Robot

There was an unusual TV programme recently because it linked self-driving cars with self-driving race cars. It began by telling us that trucks will be an early up-taker of the new technology as 30% of this transport cost is paid to a driver. A truck driver must also conform to tachograph rules, thereby limiting use of the truck. If you are a school leaver keen to become a trucker or taxi driver, now is the time to change your mind, although not so for trainee race drivers.

Electric propulsion lends itself well to new technology and car makers are working flat-out to get electric and hybrid cars in their model range. The UK media bombards car buyers with news about the imminent arrival of high-tech motoring. This has resulted in a fall in the UK’s new car sales as people are reluctant to buy old technology petrol or especially diesel cars. They are waiting instead for manufacturers to launch the next generation of low emission vehicles.

Blog readers may be aware of Roborace; a self-driving race car concept that will soon have its own championship (yawn). The development mule is DevBot, a Ginetta LMP3 robot vehicle that looks like a modern Le Mans racer with the cockpit in place, but the bodywork absent. This enables easier maintenance, and for the vehicle to carry a driver if required. For a real-world comparison, they strapped in Guy Martin, the have-a-go-hero who is a favourite on our TV screens. On Silverstone’s tiny 0.8 mile Stowe circuit, Guy was tasked to beat DevBot’s lap time. As a comparison, a Formula Ford can lap this circuit in 39secs. The result was Guy 61sec, DevBot 68sec. This 11.5% difference is an eternity in the world of motorsport. For example, if you have a race car in front of you that is 1 second per lap slower than you, that other car is very much in your way. One second is about 150 feet per lap slower at race speeds.

While DevBot’s ingenious technology may be beneficial to robot street cars, a robot race car algorithm can only compete with other robots. What goes on in the brain of a race driver when a car is balanced at an ever-evolving limit in ever-evolving circumstances, is light-years ahead of any artificial intelligence. So much so, that it is not even worth discussing. And we haven’t even mentioned racecraft. Yes, we know that in 1997 the world chess champion Gary Kasparov was beaten by IBM’s supercomputer Deep Blue, but a chess algorithm is as nothing when compared with a human brain.