The sleek, low-slung driverless Roborace car was on display in New York City for the Formula E races this weekend, but it was the workhorse DevBot that took to the track. You can recognize DevBot by its bubble-like cockpit, where a human sits ready to take the wheel if the autonomous car needs a literal hand.
Given Formula E‘s one-day structure, with qualifying sessions early in the day and the race in the afternoon, Roborace is able to take advantage of the empty track in the middle of the day for demonstrations of its artificial intelligence system on wheels. DevBot did a practice run early Saturday morning, then spent an hour taking laps in front of the crowd in the afternoon.
DevBot has an array of sensors, plus advanced GPS for navigating the track, which is not preprogrammed into the car’s computers. It reads the track and learns the route as it goes, which means DevBot drives much more slowly than the Formula E cars. An in-car camera behind the driver’s shoulder was projected on large screens around the track so spectators could see if — and when — the driver had to put hands on the wheel.
DevBot could only navigate about half a lap in New York without intervention. It found Turn Six particularly tricky. The completely driverless Roborace car did take a lap on its own in Paris, but it was moving more slowly than DevBot in New York. Here in New York, the driver took control for a lap, likely to train the AI at speed. Well, sort of at speed. DevBot wasn’t built for full-out racing speeds so much as for processing speeds.
While nerdy types found this hour of DevBot’s AI education interesting, run-of-the-mill racing fans were less impressed. Some fans I spoke to expected DevBot to be faster and for the driver to provide less input — like, zero. They also expected the Roborace car, in red and white livery, to take a lap, rather than the cruder-looking DevBot, despite its cheerful American flag theme.
There’s no official word on when Roborace vehicles will be ready to actually race. There was an optimistic idea that the field of 20 driverless cars would be taking to the track in the 2017/2018 season, but DevBot’s demonstration on Saturday showed that a fully autonomous race later this year is unlikely.
Update: I learned from a Roborace spokesperson that after I had to leave the track on Saturday, the DevBot did complete a lap without a human in the car. It also completed several autonomous laps in a row on Sunday afternoon.