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How to complete a 24-hour race… with one driver

Roborace designer outlines how human and AI ‘drivers’ could work together

This weekend, drivers will contest the Spa 24 Hours, including Top Gear’s very own Chris Harris. Races like the Spa and Le Mans 24 Hours are really, really bloody hard; though they are exciting, they are also cruel, punishing and hugely challenging.

Three drivers per car, that’s the norm. Each driver does a designated stint, comes in, swaps, sleeps/eats/rues mistakes/watches timing screens, then hops back out again when their teammates have driven.

But what if there was just one human driver behind the wheel in the future, assisted by artificial intelligence?

It’s a thought that Daniel Simon – the man who designed the self-driving Robocar – has entertained as a motorsport possibility in the distant future.

“How would a 24-hour race look with just one driver?” he rhetorically asked TG recently. “The human drives as long as he or she can, then the autonomous mode continues your race, based on your performance. Or your style. Let’s say the human makes a mistake, the autonomous mode punishes you by being a bit shaky…”

Interesting idea, no? It’s all rooted in Daniel’s – and indeed the Roborace team’s - philosophy that our car and motorsport future is not driverless, but instead one of those ‘drivers’ is code. “It’ll take a lot of hard work in the future that we accept something like that code as a driver,” he said. “A person almost, but not made of flesh and blood. I think there’s a generation growing up now that will accept that.” A pause. “There have been movies about that!”

Indeed, he corrects himself while shooting the breeze with TG. “My earlier analogy then is wrong – it’s not 24 hours with one driver. Its 24 hours with two drivers, where one is human and one AI. That’s what it should be called, and if we reach that point, I think it will be interesting.”

The 1970s were a crazy time for show cars, and we’ve somehow lost this marvel of being a bit outrageous

This is a long way off, of course. And he uses an analogy that fits our position on the AI timeline. “I love aviation,” he said. “I remember reading about when the first planes crossed the English Channel, and how – if I was there – I simply wouldn’t have believed it.

“Fast forward to today, where people simply walk onto jetliners not even looking at the plane – they’re on their mobile phones – not caring about the plane, flying around the world with champagne in their hands.

“Right now, we’re in the time with autonomy that in aviation they were when they just crossed the English Channel. People are scared of it.”

Naturally, he’s aware of autonomous driving having its critics – “it’s such a difficult process, I’m OK if people criticise it, it needs to be criticised” – but notes how the Robocar has the freedom to be a bit more… out there.

“A project like Robocar is emotionally important. I worked in the car industry before – and I’m still passionate about cars – but, let’s be honest, you can’t do revolutionary things. It’s consumer products. In a competitive market.

“So most designers have this urge to just be free and show what could be done. The 1970s were a crazy time for show cars, and we’ve somehow lost this marvel of being a bit outrageous here and there.

“The internet is part of this,” he added. “There’s a movement now of criticising things too fast, so creators don’t dare that much anymore.”

Which leaves Roborace out there trying to push the boundaries. “This is the blank sheet of paper we had. The potential that autonomous cars have, that they can perform things a human body cannot cope with…”

Like running a 24-hour race with just one driver.

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