How Roborace’s Autonomous Race Cars Will Accelerate Driverless Technology

November 03, 2016 by Dr. Steve Arar

Formula E racing now has a showcase for autonomous racecars.

Roborace, a global championship between autonomous cars, will test driverless technology in the extreme conditions of competition.

Several car manufacturers are endeavoring to make driverless technology a reality. In addition to carmakers, there are other companies which are accelerating the emergence of autonomous vehicles. Omron’s facial recognition technology, which was recently presented at CEATEC, is a good example of such developments.

To further accelerate development of driverless vehicles, Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E, and Denis Sverdlov, founder of Kinetik, have started down a different path. Their goal? A global championship between autonomous cars—Roborace.

Agag notes that there are three main directions for the future of the motor industry: manufacturing electric cars, getting connected, and going driverless. While the first goal is almost fulfilled, the other two need further development. Roborace can provide a competitive platform to develop new solutions in the realm of autonomous vehicles and brutally test the existing ones in extreme conditions. Sverdlov hopes that Roborace will strengthen the idea of having driverless cars as a part of everyday life without compromising the safety.

Note the massive amounts of negative space Roborace incorporates in the body's design. Image courtesy of Roborace.


Each of the participating teams will need to buy an electric car for the competition—except for the crowd-sourced ones which are sponsored by Roborace. The car, called Robocar, is 4.8-meters long and 2-meters wide. These numbers are close to those of a Formula E car; however, Robocar weighs 1000kg which is 112kg heavier than a FE machine.

Robocar is expected to be almost as fast as the Formula One cars. According to Sverdlov, which is also CEO of Roborace, the competition organizers will set a limit for the speed but really crazy speeds up to 186mph are expected.

Due to not needing to leave space for a driver, it was possible to design the car to be radically different from the standard race car. The result was that they incorporated massive openings in the body of the car. As shown in the image below, Robocar, which is covered with sensors, looks wickedly aerodynamic.

Chief design officer of Robocar, Daniel Simon, is most famous for his work in film. Perhaps he developed this knack for futuristic racing designs during his time working on movies like Tron: Legacy. Simon has taken full advantage of the fact that Robocar does not need to accommodate a driver. While using this opportunity to design a fast and efficient car, he is not compromising on beauty at all. To have a clean and iconic look, the design team needed to generate substantial downforce without cluttering the car with unnecessary parts.

Image courtesy of Robocar.


Sverdlov notes that Roborace has been nicknamed the “global championship of intelligence”. As such, it would be fitting to design Robocar as one of the smartest cars ever to be made. The car will be revealed properly later this year.

The artificial intelligence engine of Robocar will be DRIVE PX2 designed by NVIDIA. This is the world’s most powerful in-cockpit processor. In addition to being connected to radar, lidar, and ultrasonic sensors, the processor is capable of receiving data from 12 cameras, as well. This will help to have a full 360-degrees view of the car’s environment.

The processor is optimized to perform the calculations required for deep learning network inference. It certainly has a heavy computational burden, analyzing all the moving and static objects around the car in real time.

The DevBot the night before the Hong Kong exhibition. Image courtesy of Robocar.


DevBot is Roborace’s driverless electric car which allows the teams to run their software and hardware used on Robocar before the Roborace begins in full. DevBot made its public debut on August 24th at Donington Park in the UK.

Unlike the sleek, rocket-like Robocar, the DevBot has a cabin and can be driven either by a human driver or by a computer. Therefore, a human driver can test the car on a racetrack and compare the results with the data obtained and analyzed by the computer. DevBot has the same sensors, drivetrain, computational modules, and communication technology as the Robocar. The design team claims that DevBot, which was developed in under nine months, has unparalleled results in AI and robotic car racing.

The first event of Roborace (more of an exhibition, really) was scheduled for this month in Hong Kong. However, DevBot ran into a battery issue. Although the Roborace team could fix the problem, they chose not to go through with the showcase due to safety concerns. They're hoping to do the big reveal in Marrakesh in November.

Software: The Focus of Competition

The idea behind Roborace is that the hardware is identical for all of the teams. The key is that they have to develop their own algorithms and software.

Once the software takes control of the Robocar, the engineers will not have any control over the car. Focusing on the software development, Roborace hopes to directly feed achieved algorithms to autonomous cars from various manufacturers across the world.  

Today’s algorithms are already capable of programming an autonomous car to go around a track safely; however, Roborace is trying to go beyond these explored territories to arrive at a driverless technology which can make judgment calls just like a racing driver. Such technology must be able to decide when to do the complicated maneuver of overtaking and when to back out of a move. Many things—such as determining the right moment of speeding up, the proper direction and value of acceleration, and more—need to be calculated to successfully mimic the behavior of a human driver. Besides all of that, the real-time algorithms will need to take into account the rules of the competition in order not to be penalized.

Since the algorithms are designed for the extreme conditions of the competition, we can expect that they will be even much more successful in everyday driving. At very least, the engineers designing these race cars will learn a great deal about the limits of current AI technology for driverless vehicles.

Roborace's Applications for Consumers

Roborace has attracted some criticism. Some even name the competition as a marketing-driven money-making scheme masquerading as motorsport!

Sverdlov believes that the competition will be a fascinating spectacle while leading to fast and efficient driverless cars. Moreover, unlike the traditional competition in which the driver is the center of attention, in Roborace, successes and failures will be attributed to an entire team.

While millions of dollars are invested in Formula One cars, the achieved technologies cannot be used in mass-produced cars or on normal roads. However, Roborace is different: it is mainly focused on software design and its results can revolutionize the autonomous car industry.

Many teams from across the industry, research labs, universities, and motorsport have applied via to participate in the competition.

Certainly, there are many obstacles in the way of making this competition a fascinating spectacle; however, the Roborace team is working hard. Let's keep our fingers crossed that soon we will witness the world's first global championship between autonomous cars.