Although companies such as Google, Tesla, Volvo and others are researching autonomous driving technologies, the idea hasn’t quite taken hold with mainstream drivers yet. Roborace is looking to change that while accelerating development of the individual technologies involved with an autonomous electric race car called the Robocar, which was recently made its US debut in New York City’s Times Square to help kick off the inaugural FIA Formula E Qualcomm NYC ePrix Championship in Brooklyn. Passersby could check out the robotic car and take photographs with it.

Denis Sverdlov, Roborace CEO

Speaking with AListDaily from Times Square, Roborace CEO Denis Sverdlov described the company as a “technology and marketing platform.” Roborace is partnered with different companies to develop driving and collision avoidance software and hardware for real-world autonomous cars. Developing in a competitive environment with extreme conditions will create knowledge that can be applied to consumer vehicles directly.

In terms of marketing, the company is working to promote the future of an electric, driverless and connected vehicles. According to Sverdlov, most people don’t want robotic cars on their roads today, but they’ll become more accepting once they see how they behave in extreme conditions.

First introduced in February at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Robocar is a level 5 autonomous car, meaning that it can go anywhere without the need for human engagement. The AI driver can handle all conditions across all environments, and it’s self-aware enough to handle any onboard issues that might arise with minimal risk to occupants and traffic.

In testing, the Robocar has shown speeds of over 200 miles per hour, with the primary limitation for the vehicle being battery life. The Robocar includes technologies from companies such as Charge, Nvidia, and Michelin tires, which are extremely important for autonomous driving. Sverdlov describes the Robocar as the ultimate technology platform with the flexibility to do many things. Roborace won’t be limited to traditional seasons, so the company is free to add new technologies as they come out. Therefore, the Robocar will always remain on the cutting edge of technology.

Racing Ahead With Autonomous Technology

A racing series is critical to realizing an electric and driverless car future, and when discussing the design of the Robocar, the company determined that the car needed to be attractive and that the event shouldn’t be the same as traditional motorsports.

Daniel Simon, Roborace CDO

“Everything has to be wrapped in a layer of entertainment, and part of that is an attractive vehicle that gets you emotionally connected,” said Daniel Simon, chief design officer for Roborace. “Just seeing the reaction in Times Square is an indication of how much looks matter. That’s important to us at every single step.”

The intention of Roborace is to promote the racing series and provide each team with its own Robocar to work with. The teams are tasked with developing the software algorithms that will drive the vehicle in races. Sverdlov added that it’s not necessarily about the racing, it’s about creating an entertainment and development platform.

“We’re in the process of hiring teams, and my expectation is that we’ll see 10 cars racing within the next two years. That time will be used to help the teams develop their software. It will be a flexible format [that will start] with different types of challenges, including two cars competing against each other. We’ll try to simplify things a little bit because the hardware and software aren’t quite ready for extreme conditions yet, but we believe that or format and platform will help to develop it.” The Roborace showcase is in line with the current Formula E season right now, and we’ll likely see the first official Roborace challenge held in Hong Kong this December.

The event will be broadcast in partnership with Formula E racing, however, Sverdlov stated that Roborace will be putting extra emphasis on digital platforms because they believe that their biggest fans probably don’t watch television. The Robocar’s reveal in Barcelona had a reach of 1.7 billion people, according to Sverdlov, who said that the company will look to continue to engage with its audience through social media.

Event sponsors include Allianz, Michelin, Nvidia, Lego and DHL, although Sverdlov said, “We don’t call them sponsors—they are all partners for us. Even if they’re not in the automotive industry, a company like Lego helps us appeal to young kids.”

“Lego is also a good example of how this bridges generations,” Simon added. “Two-year-olds play with Lego and so do adults. Engineers test stuff with Lego bricks. That’s exactly what we want to be—we want a wider-ranging audience than traditional motorsports. Also, we deliver a chassis, so we’re attractive to more people than car companies and motorsport teams.”

Bridging The Gap Between Man And Machine

When asked whether Roborace has considered a man versus machine competition, Sverdlov confirmed that the event series will be completely comprised of autonomous cars. “Everyone asks for man versus machine, but what we need to remember is that this car is a hundred times faster than a human in making decisions. In reality, a human does not have a chance against this type of machine. The G-forces this car creates can’t support a human being inside.”

Simon also pointed out that robotic cars could potentially take more risks, which could increase the excitement factors for viewers. “We don’t know the future, we’re just shaping it,” he said. “Along the way, we’re trying to modify our ideas for what the racing form could be. We don’t want to copy the classic conventional racing formats—we think that’s a rather boring racing setup. We have opportunities to mix this up with entertainment challenges and it doesn’t necessarily need to be perfectly tied into seasons and we could potentially have something every other week. This is a level 5 autonomous car, so we can do things outside of the race track and we’re not tied to a Monza or New York track. We could put the car on Pikes Peak and participate in a hill climb. This is such a flexible format, which excites me.

Neither could reveal who the Roborace participants will be yet, but Sverdlov hinted that they include companies from traditional car manufacturing industry, motorsport teams, universities and technology companies. Roborace has over 100 requests that they are considering by first putting their driving software through simulations. If it works in the simulation, then the team gets a real Robocar to work with.

While talking about the engineering teams behind the Robocar, Simon said the series will put emphasis on how humans are working on the technologies. “We want to always put the human factor into it as much as we can.” But what about how traditional race car drivers show feats of human skill? Wouldn’t autonomous cars drive perfectly robotic races?

“Not necessarily,” said Sverdlov, “because in the end, those algorithms were created by humans. They can use different strategies and approaches, so we see a lot of the human factor in this series. In the end, it’s humans creating those technologies. The difference is, we don’t risk the lives of people sitting inside the car.”

Simon disagreed with the question, stating, “the human part in today’s racing is actually shockingly small in a cockpit. A Formula 1 team is probably 90 percent of what they prepped in the garage and 10 percent what the driver does on the track.

“Also, programs have character. Just go back to the rise of personal computers. You would think that they’re all the same, but then you have Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who are so different in character. They created different operating systems that draw you to one or the other. These operating systems are characters in a sense, which will also be reflected in the coding of these cars. You can have a really aggressive programmer who always goes after the first turn, or one that lets all the other cars get in trouble first and then takes it all the way to the end.”

Adding to the computer analogy, Sverdlov explained that in the future, the main differentiator between cars will be the driverless software. “Which car will have the best AI driver? This competition will see which AI driver is the best,” he said.

Driving Forward

However, there’s still a way from getting robots to drive cars in high-speed races to having them take to the streets of New York City. When asked how Roborace will work to bridge the two worlds, Sverdlov said, “We’ll probably see two types of applications for this kind of technology, and one is level 5 autonomous driving, where there is no driver at all. But brands that are focused on drivers like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin and others see completely driverless cars as an impossibility. But we believe that technologies like 360-degree awareness may give drivers new skills and even save them in risky conditions. This platform helps develop both aspects of this technology, whether it’s completely autonomous or they’re safety algorithms, which acts like an angel watching over the human driver. We believe that this racing series is more relevant to the world’s cars than anything else on the market.”

Simon takes the consumer market potential a step further by imagining, “you can take the luxury high-performance market with a sports car that will drive you around a track by an AI that mimics a famous race car driver. So, for the first time, you’ll be able to see what Mark Webber can do with your car. This will open up a stronger passion for real driving, but it’s fueled by AI technology. It’ll be quite the opposite of taking you out of the seat, and that will trickle down to public transportation and city cars. People will say that they put their child into an autonomous car because they saw a demo run or race where these cars do incredible things. We want to build up a trust level with the technology.”

So, what remains the challenge of building up trust with autonomous vehicles?

“I think people just need to see how smart they are and how they behave in impossible situations. This technology is being developed for two reasons: to make driving safer—90 percent of accidents happen because of the human factor—and to make the cost of traveling per mile lower. But safety is the biggest part of that.”

Looking down at an afternoon traffic jam in Times Square, Simon added that “it’s hard to believe that we accept that this is the way traffic flows—or actually doesn’t flow. If you broaden your perspective and think back to the elevator, they were originally staffed by a guy who pressed the buttons for you. In fact, when these people disappeared and elevators became automated, people were scared that these automated elevators wouldn’t keep them safe. We’re trying to see a much bigger picture, and we also tend to be so impatient these days. People get anxious if we announce a technology and it doesn’t happen within months. But this is a monumental shift, so even a year’s time goes by fast.”

“Time will help us address many issues we have as a society,” said Sverdlov. “If all cars are robotic, you will not have traffic jams and you will not need traffic lights. We’re moving to this future much faster than we think.”