Features

Formula E is great - but Roborace autonomous racing just won't work

'Roborace' is on the way - but we're not so sure it'll work

Last week, Formula E and technology partner Kinetik announced plans to launch a global race series for driverless electric cars.

Just let that sink in for a second: racing, without drivers. Without personalities, without human fallibility, without emotions and bitter rivalries. Without a driver’s back-story. Without a young star’s potential or an old hand’s history.

Is it negative to decry such a thing before it’s even begun? Are we luddites for thinking that the series – named Roborace (officially in block capitals, that we shan’t replicate here) and set to support the Formula E series – won’t just lack drivers, but the excitement and intrigue inherent to any sport involving emotional, driven human protagonists?

We’d like to think not. evo covered Formula E throughout its inaugural season. For those prepared to cast aside their prejudices, Formula E’s racing is genuinely exciting. Probably more so than Formula 1, in most cases, with ample overtaking, nose-to-tail chains of cars, and low mechanical grip.

There are bugs to iron out – the car-swapping still seems contrived, and some of the circuits (notably the season finale in London) have layouts neither conducive to excitement nor overtaking. The cars aren’t fast, but the circuits are tight and the cameras used for televised coverage are positioned close to the track, giving much greater illusion of speed than F1 TV feeds that take in two or three corners at a time.

But part of that excitement is knowing that real, human drivers are working away at the wheel. They’re the ones managing the low grip levels, bouncing over kerbs and occasionally tangling with their peers.

Nobody wants drivers to be injured (or worse), but one of the greatest thrills of motorsport is its jeopardy. Drivers and fans know the racing is dangerous. It’s part of the thrill. We don’t even need to be taking part to feel the adrenalin rush of watching dangerous sports, be they racing drivers, jockeys, bobsleigh teams, boxers and other sportsmen and women pushing their bodies to the limit.

We can appreciate the thinking behind an autonomous race series, of course. It’s a celebration of technology; technology that could genuinely change the face of transportation. Even those who love driving can appreciate that there’s a time and a place for self-driving vehicles, be it that horrific motorway commute on a rainy Friday afternoon, or opening up personal transportation to those unable to drive themselves, through disability or otherwise.

Roborace will apparently demonstrate that autonomous technology due to appear in road cars can work in extreme conditions. But unlike improving materials technology, refining combustion power or increasing electric efficiency, the road relevance of making a bunch of cars circulate a track seems limited.

Autonomous road vehicles will be inherently defensive. They will give each other space, brake to avoid incidents and stop before a pedestrian steps into the road. Racers must be aggressive, forcing others from their line, going four-abreast into turns and braking later than they really should. Racers take risks.

That’s where humanity will always have the edge. As drivers, they will push beyond a car’s limits to beat their opponent. As spectators, we can marvel at the risks drivers take, doing things we never would, or could.

There is little an autonomous car will do that we, as drivers or spectators, never would. We know this as autonomous, artificial intelligence racing already exists: in the virtual world. Videogames have implemented AI drivers for decades. And as anyone familiar with gaming knows, even the most advanced AI competition never truly drive like humans.

Yes, developers can program in aggression, or fallibility, or a virtuoso performance. But no game replicates the feeling of racing against others on the internet, or friends in the same room. Aggressive drivers will blindly block your way because they’re programmed to, not because they strive to win at any cost. Cars fall off the road because an algorithm tells them to take a turn a little too fast one lap, not because the driver behind has distracted them enough to make a mistake.

And a virtual driver will win because a calculation somewhere allows them to drive with non-human consistency and precision, not because they’ve spent their whole life tirelessly striving to improve and beat their rivals and can apply that skill to the conditions at hand.

There’s no doubt Roborace will be technically impressive. But as a spectacle? Something to become emotionally invested in, to laugh or cry at, to shout at the TV over or to argue about with co-workers? It’ll make us wonder why we ever criticised F1 drivers for lacking personality.

Recommended

Everrati Porsche 964 2021 review – a restomod 911 with a difference
Everrati Porsche 964 – front tracking
Electric cars

Everrati Porsche 964 2021 review – a restomod 911 with a difference

It’s a ’90s 911, but not as we know it. Powered by a 440bhp electric motor, can this converted classic get close to the driving experience of the orig…
28 May 2021
2022 Cupra Born revealed – a sporty Spanish take on the Volkswagen ID.3
Cupra Born reveal – front quarter
Cupra

2022 Cupra Born revealed – a sporty Spanish take on the Volkswagen ID.3

Cupra’s new Born EV capitalises on VW’s vast electric investment, but with a distinctive sporty edge
25 May 2021
295bhp Volkswagen ID.4 GTX priced from €50,415
Volkswagen ID.4 GTX - front quarter
Volkswagen

295bhp Volkswagen ID.4 GTX priced from €50,415

Volkswagen’s ID.4 GTX is the first high performance electric derivative from the MEB platform, and it’s on sale now
19 May 2021
Audi RS e-tron GT 2021 review – how does Audi’s take on a Porsche Taycan stack up?
etron GT header
Audi e-tron GT

Audi RS e-tron GT 2021 review – how does Audi’s take on a Porsche Taycan stack up?

Range-topping Audi RS e-tron GT benefits from Porsche Taycan DNA to be a superb grand tourer
12 May 2021

Most Popular

New 992 Porsche 911 GT3 Touring revealed – now available in manual and PDK
Porsche 911 GT3 Touring – rear profile
Porsche 911 GT3

New 992 Porsche 911 GT3 Touring revealed – now available in manual and PDK

The Touring pack has returned, combining the 992 GT3’s set-up with more understated looks
15 Jun 2021
BMW M5 CS 2021 review – a class act that reaffirms the M division’s brilliance
BMW M5 CS – front cornering
BMW M5 saloon

BMW M5 CS 2021 review – a class act that reaffirms the M division’s brilliance

Nonsensical on paper, but sublime in practice. Never has a modern supersaloon been more tactile or more engaging
14 Jun 2021
The reluctant LaFerrari driver – evo archive
evo archive – LaFerrari truck extraction – stop!
Ferrari

The reluctant LaFerrari driver – evo archive

How do you get a £1million hypercar out of the back of a delivery truck? Very, very, slowly…
15 Jun 2021
Updated in-line six Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door revealed – hybrid V8s still to come
Mercedes-AMG GT53 MY22 – front tracking
Mercedes

Updated in-line six Mercedes-AMG GT 4-Door revealed – hybrid V8s still to come

GT43 and GT53 4-Doors receive a refresh while we await the arrival of the V8 hybrid GT73
14 Jun 2021
Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition 2021 review – a 720bhp tribute act
Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition – slide
Ford Mustang

Ford Mustang Steve McQueen Bullitt Edition 2021 review – a 720bhp tribute act

Immense performance from about the coolest modern muscle car out there. It’s expensive, but there’s nothing else quite like it
12 Jun 2021
MAT Stratos 2021 review – Lancia’s iconic Stratos reborn
MAT Stratos – front tracking
Lancia

MAT Stratos 2021 review – Lancia’s iconic Stratos reborn

It’s been a long time coming, but this Ferrari F430-based reimagining of the Lancia Stratos is finally here
11 Jun 2021
2021 Audi RS3 Sportback and saloon previewed – will it finally match Mercedes-AMG A45 S?
Audi RS3 manufacturer spy 1
Audi RS3

2021 Audi RS3 Sportback and saloon previewed – will it finally match Mercedes-AMG A45 S?

Audi Sport is putting the final touches on its new RS3 hot hatch and saloon
10 Jun 2021
Tesla Model S Plaid deliveries begin – 1006bhp super saloon now reaching customers
Tesla Model S Plaid
Tesla Model S

Tesla Model S Plaid deliveries begin – 1006bhp super saloon now reaching customers

The long-awaited Tesla Model S Plaid has finally come to fruition, with first US examples hitting the road
11 Jun 2021
Next generation BMW 7-series spied – flagship saloon to once again set the tone for future models
Next generation BMW 7-series spied – front quarter
BMW 7 Series

Next generation BMW 7-series spied – flagship saloon to once again set the tone for future models

All-new saloon to feature IC and EV powertrains, but once again it’ll also lead the way aesthetically
16 Jun 2021
GTO Engineering Squalo interior sketches revealed – new-build Ferrari 250 GTO hommage draws closer
GTO Engineering interior
Ferrari

GTO Engineering Squalo interior sketches revealed – new-build Ferrari 250 GTO hommage draws closer

New details, including the interior, have been revealed about the GTO Engineering Squalo
15 Jun 2021
Posaidon’s 217mph Mercedes-AMG E63 RS is faster than a Porsche 918 Spyder
Posaidon Mercedes-AMG E63
Mercedes E63 AMG

Posaidon’s 217mph Mercedes-AMG E63 RS is faster than a Porsche 918 Spyder

Three new Posaidon power upgrades are now available for Mercedes-AMG’s E63 S, bringing hypercar numbers to the four door supersaloon
9 Jun 2021
Used car deals of the week
Used car deals 11 June 21
used cars

Used car deals of the week

Here's what caught evo’s fancy this week on the second hand car market
11 Jun 2021
Can the Renault Clio Trophy beat a modern supersaloon for daily transport?
Jethro opinion header
Opinion

Can the Renault Clio Trophy beat a modern supersaloon for daily transport?

The boot struts have gone saggy and the hatch slams onto my head three times a week, but the Clio Trophy is hard to resist
8 Jun 2021
Forza Horizon 5 confirmed for November 2021 – open-world driving game heads to Mexico
Forza Horizon 5
videogames

Forza Horizon 5 confirmed for November 2021 – open-world driving game heads to Mexico

The open-world Forza Horizon series has become a go-to for car fans, and its fifth installment is just around the corner
15 Jun 2021