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Prospects for driverless cars

Needing as it does the support of the automotive industry for its very survival, motor racing has embraced fuel efficiency, hybrids and now electric vehicles. But what about that other major concern of the industry today – the driverless car?

If the FIA were to open Formula One to driverless cars next year, what are the chances – disregarding the available development time, hypothetically speaking – that one of the top teams would field a car quicker over either a qualifying lap or a Grand Prix distance than a human-driven car?

Nick Wirth knows a thing or two about unmanned technology having in the past created sophisticated robots as well as Formula One cars. He discounts the possibility of a driverless Formula One car outrunning its manned equivalent in the short term.

By contrast, a Formula One team technical director, who wishes to remain nameless, says, “In my opinion, based purely on experience with closed-loop lap simulation results, there is significant evidence to suggest that a virtual ‘driver model’ can cope with a significantly more ‘unstable’ car compared to reality. The big question though is whether this theoretical increase could be converted into reality.

“Control system recognition and response is the key factor here,” he says. “I think there is enough evidence to suggest that, in theory, a digital controller could function at a higher bandwidth compared to a human being. If this can be achieved then the digital controller should outperform its human counterpart.

“Obviously, both the development resource and the time required to achieve this is significant, but I believe it could eventually be done. Therefore, all the big-budget teams would ultimately be interested in this development thread if it were legal, which it obviously isn't.”

Mike Lancaster is the brains behind one of the top suppliers of control electronics to professional racing, and he says, “The quick answer is that I have little idea, and I suspect that will be the same for most of us. That said, my initial thoughts are that the human driver is a complex creature endowed with a vast array of subtle feedback systems, and controlled ultimately by the most sophisticated parallel processing system that as far as we know exists anywhere. Despite this, the organic brain is very slow, not only to process information in real time but sluggish in machine terms to react appropriately.

“Lined up against the organic computer is a vastly faster albeit single-minded ‘brain’ that knows nothing at all beyond following sequential instructions. Assuming the driverless car was able to drive around each corner alone and unimpeded, and with sufficient and no doubt considerable time to adapt to circumstances, in the end it would be faster than any human in my opinion.

“The analogue is a modern fighter aircraft, which is fundamentally unstable and controlled by computer, without which it could not be flown by a human. Assuming the same budget was applied to racing a land-based vehicle without a driver then the writing is on the wall. All of that said though, I doubt if the current driverless technology for production vehicles is at the level needed to go faster than a human… yet.”

Written by Ian Bamsey

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