Featured Article

Inside the Autonomous Racing League event that pitted a self-driving car against a Formula 1 driver

Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what happened

Comment

A2RL Grid - autonomous race
Image Credits: A2RL

Wander the pits at any professional motorsports event, especially something like Formula 1, and you’ll see endless computer displays full of telemetry. Modern teams are awash in real-time digital feedback from the cars. I’ve been in many of these pits over the years and marveled at the streams of data, but never have I seen an instance of the Microsoft Visual Studio software development suite running there right amid the chaos.

But then, I’ve never attended anything like the inaugural Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League event this past weekend. The A2RL, as it is known, is not the first autonomous racing series: There’s the Roborace series, which saw autonomous race cars setting fast lap times while dodging virtual obstacles, and the Indy Autonomous Challenge, which most recently ran at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway during CES 2024.

While the Roborace focuses on single-car time trials and the Indy Autonomous series centers on oval action, A2RL set out to break new ground in a couple of areas.

A2RL put four cars on track, competing simultaneously for the first time. And, perhaps more significantly, it pitted the top-performing autonomous car against a human being, former Formula 1 pilot Daniil Kvyat, who drove for various teams between 2014 and 2020.

Autonomous Racing League
Image Credits: Autonomous Racing League

The real challenge was behind the scenes, with teams staffed with an impressively diverse cadre of engineers, ranging from fledgling coders to doctorate students to full-time race engineers, all fighting to find the limit in a very new way.

Unlike Formula 1, where 10 manufacturers design, develop and produce completely bespoke cars (sometimes with the help of AI), the A2RL race cars are entirely standardized to provide a level playing field. The 550-horsepower machines, borrowed from the Japanese Super Formula Championship, are identical, and the teams are not allowed to change a single component.

That includes the sensor array, which features seven cameras, four radar sensors, three lidar sensors and GPS to boot — all of which are used to perceive the world around them. As I would learn while wandering the pits and chatting to the various teams, not everybody is fully tapping into the 15 terabytes of data each car hoovers up every single lap.

Some teams, like the Indianapolis-based Code19, only started work on the monumental project of creating a self-driving car a few months ago. “There’s four rookie teams here,” said Code19 co-founder Oliver Wells. “Everyone else has been competing in competitions just like this, some of them for up to seven years.”

It’s all about the code

autonomous race - uae
Image Credits: Tim Stevens

Munich-based TUM and Milan-based Polimove have extensive experience running and winning in both Roborace and the Indy Autonomous Challenge. That experience carries over, as does the source code.

“On the one hand, the code is continuously developed and improved anyway,” said Simon Hoffmann, team principal at TUM. The team made adjustments to change the cornering behavior to suit the sharper turns in the road course and also adjust the overtaking aggression. “But in general, I would say we use the same base software,” he said.

Through the series of numerous qualifying rounds throughout the weekend, the teams with the greatest experience dominated the timing charts. TUM and Polimove were the only two teams to complete lap times in less than two minutes. Code19’s fastest lap, however, was just over three minutes; the other new teams were far slower.

This has created a competition that’s rarely seen in software development. While there have certainly been previous competitive coding challenges, like TopCoder or Google Kick Start, this is a very different sort of thing. Improvements in code mean faster lap times — and fewer crashes.

Kenna Edwards is a Code19 assistant race engineer and a student at Indiana University. She brought some previous app development experience to the table, but had to learn C++ to write the team’s antilock braking system. “It saved us at least a couple of times from crashing,” she said.

Unlike traditional coding problems that might require debuggers or other tools to monitor, improved algorithms here have tangible results. “A cool thing has been seeing the flat spots on the tire improve over the next session. Either they’ve reduced in size or in frequency,” Edwards said.

This implementation of theory not only makes for engaging engineering challenges but also opens up viable career paths. After earlier interning with Chip Ganassi Racing and General Motors, and thanks to her experience with Code19, Edwards starts full-time at GM Motorsports this summer.

An eye toward the future

Image Credits: Tim Stevens

That sort of development is a huge part of what A2RL is about. Shadowing the main on-track action is a secondary series of competitions for younger students and youth groups around the world. Before the main A2RL event, those groups competed with autonomous 1:8-scale model cars.

“The aim is, next year, we keep for the schools the smaller model cars, we’ll keep for the universities maybe doing it on go-karts, a bit bigger, they can play with the autonomous go-karts. And then, if you want to be in the big league, you start racing on these cars,” said Faisal Al Bannai, the secretary general of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council, the ATRC. “I think by them seeing that path, I think you’ll encourage more guys to come into research, to come into science.”

It’s Al Bannai’s ATRC that’s footing the bill for the A2RL, covering everything from the cars to the hotels for the numerous teams, some of whom have been testing in Abu Dhabi for months. They also put on a world-class party for the main event, complete with concerts, drone races, and a ridiculous fireworks show.

The on-track action was a little less spectacular. The first attempt at a four-car autonomous race was aborted after one car spun, blocking the following cars. The second race, however, was far more exciting, featuring a pass for the lead when the University of Modena’s Unimore team car went wide. It was TUM that made the pass and won the race, taking home the lion’s share of the $2.25 million prize purse.

As for man vs. machine, Daniil Kvyat made quick work of the autonomous car, passing it not once but twice to huge cheers from the assembled crowd of more than 10,000 spectators who took advantage of free tickets to come see a little bit of history — plus around 600,000 more streaming the event.

The technical glitches were unfortunate. Still it was a remarkable event to witness and illustrated how far autonomy has come — and of course, how much more progress needs to be made. The fastest car was still upward of 10 seconds off of Kvyat’s time. However, it ran smooth, clean laps at an impressive speed. That’s in stark contrast to the first DARPA Grand Challenge in 2004, which saw every single competitor either crashing into a barrier or meandering off into the desert on an unplanned sojourn.

For A2RL, the real test will be whether it can evolve into a financially viable series. Advertising drives most motorsports, but here, there’s the added benefit of developing algorithms and technologies that manufacturers could reasonably apply in their cars.

ATRC’s Al Bannai told me that while the series organizers own the cars, the teams own the code and are free to license it: “What they compete on at the moment is the algorithm, the AI algorithm that makes this car do what it does. That belongs to each of the teams. It doesn’t belong to us.”

The real race, then, might not be on the track, but in securing partnerships with manufacturers. After all, what better way to inspire confidence in your autonomous technology than by showing it can handle traffic on the race track at 160 mph?

More TechCrunch

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads. Designed as an independent appeals board that hears cases and then makes precedent-setting content…

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

OpenAI is removing one of the voices used by ChatGPT after users found that it sounded similar to Scarlett Johansson, the company announced on Monday. The voice, called Sky, is…

OpenAI to remove ChatGPT’s Scarlett Johansson-like voice

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

1 day ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’

Welcome back to TechCrunch’s Week in Review. This week had two major events from OpenAI and Google. OpenAI’s spring update event saw the reveal of its new model, GPT-4o, which…

OpenAI and Google lay out their competing AI visions

When Jeffrey Wang posted to X asking if anyone wanted to go in on an order of fancy-but-affordable office nap pods, he didn’t expect the post to go viral.

With AI startups booming, nap pods and Silicon Valley hustle culture are back

OpenAI’s Superalignment team, responsible for developing ways to govern and steer “superintelligent” AI systems, was promised 20% of the company’s compute resources, according to a person from that team. But…

OpenAI created a team to control ‘superintelligent’ AI — then let it wither, source says

A new crop of early-stage startups — along with some recent VC investments — illustrates a niche emerging in the autonomous vehicle technology sector. Unlike the companies bringing robotaxis to…

VCs and the military are fueling self-driving startups that don’t need roads

When the founders of Sagetap, Sahil Khanna and Kevin Hughes, started working at early-stage enterprise software startups, they were surprised to find that the companies they worked at were trying…

Deal Dive: Sagetap looks to bring enterprise software sales into the 21st century

Keeping up with an industry as fast-moving as AI is a tall order. So until an AI can do it for you, here’s a handy roundup of recent stories in the world…

This Week in AI: OpenAI moves away from safety

After Apple loosened its App Store guidelines to permit game emulators, the retro game emulator Delta — an app 10 years in the making — hit the top of the…

Adobe comes after indie game emulator Delta for copying its logo

Meta is once again taking on its competitors by developing a feature that borrows concepts from others — in this case, BeReal and Snapchat. The company is developing a feature…

Meta’s latest experiment borrows from BeReal’s and Snapchat’s core ideas

Welcome to Startups Weekly! We’ve been drowning in AI news this week, with Google’s I/O setting the pace. And Elon Musk rages against the machine.

Startups Weekly: It’s the dawning of the age of AI — plus,  Musk is raging against the machine