Roborace’s plans to engineer a driverless Formula One

With driverless cars quickly advancing, and the companies behind them seeming to ever expand their ambitions, it won't be long before see a driverless version of the sport. We take a look at the autonomous racing championship, Roborace, and its plans to make a more epic and daring driverless F1

If driverless tech does make its way to F1 is that a prospect we should look forward to? After all, Formula One is defined as much by the adaptive skill of its drivers as the technical specifications of their cars.

While the plan to automate F1 is definitely very much still in development, and we won’t necessarily be seeing driverless version for a few years yet, with companies already working on developing tournaments for autonomous cars, it’s right that we start considering whether or not software alone can really compete with the instincts and reflexes of a real driver, and whether driverless F1 will be something that draws the same crowds anyway?

Roborace

One of the companies at the forefront of turning F1 driverless is Roborace, developers of the Devbot and Robocar vehicles. In December of last year, they performed the first ever live demonstration of two driverless cars on a track at the same time and they are more broadly looking to develop a racing series for autonomous vehicles.

Featured image courtesy of Roborace. Image courtesy of Roderick Eime

Developing out of Formula E, a racing series using only electric-powered cars, the intention is for teams to compete in the Roborace series using equal cars, each with their own individual real-time computing algorithms and artificial intelligence technologies. Presumably, the inaugural series will act as a sort of proving ground for just what can be done with driverless programming in a race setting.

Bryn Balcombe, CTO Roborace, explained to Factor how he sees the future of the sport. “Formula One will always be the pinnacle of human drivers and powertrain technology. Roborace will always be the pinnacle of AI Drivers and autonomous technology,” says Balcombe. “In fact, Roborace provides a platform to develop vehicle intelligence. In the future that intelligence can be used to make traditional motorsport safer, for example by increasing 360 degree awareness.

“Traditional motorsport is dropping from the mainstream in both audience and awareness whereas Roborace has the ability to reconnect with the public because the same technology will be driving them and their families around in 5 years time. Roborace will introduce competition formats that are exciting to watch, but also represent extreme challenges that would be too risky for human drivers. For example, the introduction of traffic (trucks, buses, vans etc) into the racing environment could introduce closing speeds of over 100mph between vehicles.”

Autonomy versus Instinct

Perhaps the most difficult part of replacing Formula One with a driverless version is that autonomous vehicles, at least in their current form, are unable to replicate human instinct. Their sensor arrays can tell them every detail of the track they are on, and what is around them, but without true artificial intelligence, any reaction must be pre-programmed.

Machine learning will no doubt be able to play a part in teaching the vehicles a vast array of responses and possible choices, but the question remains as to whether or not a car could ever learn enough, and be smart enough, to replicate the split-second decisions that a human makes purely off experience and instinct. Would a car see such decisions too far outside of the norms they are programmed with?

To truly evolve the sport, the vehicles will need to be able to surprise spectators; they’ll need to act in ways that may initially seem counterintuitive

“We refer to the driver of our autonomous vehicles as the AI driver. The AI driver, just like a human driver, uses all of the information available to it from its large sensor suite of Lidar, radar, ultrasonic sensors, GNSS and machine vision cameras, to make decisions about how to drive and react,” says Balcombe. “The primary focus is on the ability of the AI Drivers to perceive and act within the dynamic environments that we create. If an AI Driver is more accurate in perception it has a better chance of taking the correct actions.

“However, actions also require judgement – of intent, of other competitors and prediction. It’s the ground based equivalent of a military dogfight with AI Drivers continually engaged in an OODA Loop (observe, orient, decide, and act). The key challenge is to get inside the OODA loop of a competitor to gain an advantage.”

For now, the question is somewhat moot. The technology isn’t yet where it would need to be to stage a racing series that can compete with the F1 establishment. At the most basic level, it would be relatively easy to programme the vehicles with an ideal driving line and have them follow it. The trouble there is that you would then just end up with a queue of cars that are all unable to adapt and work out a way to get ahead that doesn’t use the line handed to them. To truly evolve the sport, the vehicles will need to be able to surprise spectators; they’ll need to act in ways that may initially seem counterintuitive.

Can we convince people there’s a real driver behind the wheel

In October of 2016, the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) updated their defined levels of autonomous driving to reflect the levels outlined by SAE International’s J3016 document. According to the SAE document, at level 5, an autonomous car should be able to equal a human driver in every scenario.

This Level 5 scenario is where driverless vehicles are going to need to be to truly compete with F1, from both a technical and entertainment perspective. For all intents and purposes, a spectator should be convinced that the vehicle is driving as if there was a human behind the wheel. However, the advantage they may hold is their freedom from the somewhat important physical safety of human drivers.

The element of risk involved in sports like F1 is in no small part of the appeal, drawing crowds to witness drivers defying death at high speed. There are of course, however, myriad structures and regulations put in place to try and ensure that those drivers stay as far away from death as possible. Perhaps the greatest strength of a driverless Formula One is that there is no need for such structures because it is only vehicles at risk.

With safety regulations, largely, thrown out of the window is it possible that driverless Formula One could assume a form far greater than the traditional format? Admittedly, providing a car with programming telling it to disregard safety concerns may lead to something closer to rally racing than the perhaps more refined F1. At the same time however, it could prove to be a far more exciting prospect as, free from the frailty of their human masters, the cars are able to work to their full potential. And if it results in a car or two going out in a fireball of glory, it would at least make for a grand spectacle.

US wants to use the Moon as a petrol station

US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross has said that the Trump administration aims to turn the Moon into a petrol station, which will allow for the exploration of deeper parts of the solar system. According to Ross, explorers would use ice from the moon's craters to refuel on the way to other destinations.

SpaceX’s first broadband satellites are now in space

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has confirmed the company's first broadband satellites – named Tintin A and Tintin B – have been deployed and are now "communicating to Earth stations". The satellites are being used to test SpaceX's future Starlink broadband service, which aims to provide gigabit broadband worldwide.

Source: Ars Technica

Nissan to trial self-driving taxis in Japan

Nissan and Japanese tech giant DeNA have announced field tests of Easy Ride, the self-driving taxi service they developed together, will begin on March 5 in Yokohama, Japan. The cars will take passengers along a 4.5km route between the Yokohama World Porters shopping centre and Nissan’s corporate complex.

Source: Tech Crunch

Elon Musk quits AI ethics group

Elon Musk has always been quick to urge caution when it comes to AI, but now he has quit the board of the research group he co-founded to look into the tech's ethics. OpenAI said the decision had been taken to avoid any conflict of interest as Mr Musk's electric car company, Tesla, became "more focused on AI".

Source: BBC

Beef companies file petition against lab-grown meat startups

The US beef industry is fighting back against tech startups who are creating meat in a lab using animal cells. The US Cattlemen’s Association has filed a petition arguing that lab-grown meat startups should not be able to call their products "meat," since they do not come from slaughtered animals.

Millions of dollars in Ethereum are vulnerable to hackers

Researchers claim that having analysed almost one million smart contracts stored on the Ethereum blockchain, 34,200 are "critically vulnerable". A sample of roughly 3,000 vulnerable contracts that the team verified could be exploited to steal roughly $6 million worth of Ether, Ethereum’s in-house cryptocurrency.

Source: Motherboard

Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.