“The car turned in lap times that were better than those of sports car drivers…”
And in that one innocent sentence from an innocent press release, Audi may have just murdered car racing as we know it. Cheers, guys.
The car was an autonomous version of its new RS7, and the track was Californias tricky Sonoma raceway. Were told that, this week, the self-driving 560bhp four-door lapped the 4 kilometre circuit in 2m01s, recording a succession of all-but-identical times with uniform precision.
Now, we dont know (though you can be sure Audi does) how fast a human can get around Sonoma in an RS7, nor what grade of sports car driver the autonomous car outpaced. Not least, presumably, because any self-respecting racing driver for hire wouldnt want it publically known that he or she had just been thrashed by a robot.
But its a moot point whether the RS7, on this occasion, lapped Sonoma quicker than Seb Vettel or merely Taki Inoue. Because, sooner rather than later, a self-driving car will be monstering circuits faster than any human. An unbeatable, perfect autonomous racer.
Think about it. Circuit racing is, at heart, a pretty simple task for a self-respecting robot. Accelerate, brake, steer, dont go off the edge of the black stuff. Sure, there are a few potential variables that might make it more complex – weather, track condition, rogue marshals, that sort of thing – but ultimately track driving is a far more straightforward task for a self-driving car than, say, attempting to navigate through an unknown section of Mumbai during evening rush hour.
So when – and it is a case of when, not if – an autonomous car can lap any track on the planet faster than any human on the planet, is that the end for motor racing as we know it? What, frankly, is the point in Hamilton and Rosberg turning up on a Sunday afternoon if Johnny Five can do it quicker?
After all, dont we watch racing to see drivers driving as fast as possible? If a machine can do it faster still, doesnt that render redundant the fleshy pink thing in the cockpit?
BUT ON THE OTHER HAND…
First up, its worth remembering that track driving – particularly single-car, flying-lap track driving as the RS7 was doing – is about as straightforward as racing gets, at least from an autonomous cars perspective. Throw in a couple of dozen other cars (self-driving or otherwise) weaving around in apparently chaotic form, tyre and fuel strategy, and a chunk of game theory, and suddenly your autobot has to do a lot more processing.
Put said autobot in a WRC car at the start of a 50km, unfamiliar stage across icy northern Finland, and thats another challenge again. Its all within the bounds of possibility of autonomous tech – after all, ultimately self-driving cars will be reacting to exactly the same information as a human driver – but the software and hardware is rather further away.
But even when a robo-car can win any race – on track, dirt, snow or ice – it still wont spell the end for human racing. After all, chess computers are now effectively unbeatable, but humans still contest the world chess championship. We know even a Mitsubishi Mirage will do the 100 metres quicker than Usain Bolt, but we still enjoy watching the fastest sprinters in the world duke it out.
Motorsport, for most of us, isnt really about the cars, but rather about humans operating at their mental and physical limits. The vehicles are exactly that\: mere vehicles for combat. Racing is about rivalries and brinksmanship, about fallibility and form. Human motorsport is interesting precisely because humans arent perfect. And lets not forget theres a world of motorsport beyond the Hamiltons and the Ogiers. A world of garage tinkering, and temperamental classics.
Autonomous technology might soon see a driverless F1 car go faster than an, um, driverful F1 car, but such tech will remain far distant from the grubby, oily, wider world of racing.
At least, that is, until an enterprising techie turns up at your local kart track with a self-driving 270cc Honda two-stroke, and proceeds to blow the field away…