Why Self Racing Cars Is My Favorite Self-Driving Event Of The Year
“Are you allowed to be pessimistic about self-driving cars?” asked John Mullen, veteran entrepreneur and Team Principal of Beta Tauri Racing. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to himself, or to me. He had just driven 2800 miles, from Philadelphia to Thunderhill Raceway Park in Northern California, to test his autonomous sled on the track.
And it wasn’t going well.
It was the end of the first day of Self Racing Cars 2021, the fifth produced, hosted and paid for by the thoughtful-yet-blunt Joshua Schachter, whose Twitter bio says “tinkerer,” but is actually the 19th or 27th-best angel investor in America, depending on the rankings site, neither of which he reads because he doesn’t care about optics, rankings, or wearing floral shirts for 40 Under 40 photo shoots.
Schacter cares about guts. The guts of machines, and the people who build them. The machines don’t have to work, and at Self Racing Cars they often don’t, and that’s the point.
“In the early days of racing,” Schacter says on his site, “competitors first had to build their vehicles before they could race them. It was as much an engineering competition as it was a racing competition. We want to rekindle that spirit of engineering and creativity.”
Self Racing Cars (or just SRC, for alumni) isn’t a race in the traditional sense, because the technology isn’t quite ready to race wheel-to-wheel against other machines, let alone humans. Until the technology matures enough for the event to live up to its name, SRC will remain very much wrung-what-you-brung. Show up at the track Saturday or Sunday morning for Schachter’s safety briefing, and wait for your turn on the track. Laps are timed and scored, but there’s no competition or prize other than respect.
Only the first timers really care about “winning”, because the veterans know what I know, which is why I come every year: SRC isn’t a race, but it’s very much about racing. Winning or losing isn’t about beating other cars or teams. It’s about showing up and trying something new, and maybe even fixing it in front of a handful of the world’s smartest investors, and a smattering of like-minded peers.
Mullen is one of those people, and this year he joined twelve other teams that capture the spirit of racing the way it was 120 years ago: our vehicle might not even make it out of the paddock, but at least we’re here. The “we” part is intimate. I counted less than forty people on Day 1 of the two-day event, and almost all of them are team members. I also counted one significant other, and four spectators, although I’m pretty sure two of them were spies.
Because no one drives three hours north from San Francisco and stops in Willows, California without a good reason. On this particular Saturday there were only two good reasons: the performance driving school on the east side of the hill dividing Thunderhill in half, and SRC to its west.
The spectator spectators — a young couple in jeans and sunglasses — were clearly taking a break from the driving school. They walked down the SRC paddock quizzically, smiled, took selfies, and left.
But the other two “spectators” — those quiet, overdressed corporate types who come every year — were looking for the same thing I was: the future.
Who is going to build that self-driving future? People like those who bring vehicles to SRC. That’s why Schachter does this. He knows how hard it is to build a technology business, because he’s a founder who became an investor. He also knows that if you want to show off your autonomous vehicle — or really any vehicle — track time is expensive, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars a day. What better way to get your finger on the pulse of new talent than to give startups free track time, and the chance to meet the 19th (or 27th) best angel investor in the country?
Since SRC’s 2016 inception, Schachter’s generosity has turned it into a mini DARPA Challenge. This is where I met infamous hacker and Comma.ai founder George Hotz, and every year I walk the paddock looking for the next person who says they plan to change the world, or at least the self-driving world.
Rules? There’s a morning session for human drivers, and an afternoon session for the autonomous vehicles. But the action — and the word “action” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here — is really in the pits, where the teams lurk in the shade, working on their vehicles, talking amongst themselves, visiting each other, and explaining what they do to people like…me.
A couple of entries stood out: AEye, a lidar developer, brought a Chevy Bolt whose windshield they covered with a blanket so they could test their ability to drive around the track using only their Lidar sensor. Monarch, a company that creates sustainable farming equipment, brought an electric/autonomous tractor, and Faction, which produces driverless vehicles for “3-5 mile trips”, brought an electric/autonomous 3-wheeler.
All of them “worked” — in that I saw them move under their own power — but of course Monarch’s tractor never left the pits, because it’s a tractor. Times? Results? Everyone seemed happy but no one seemed to know. I went looking for Schachter to ask him, but he was busy being interviewed.
What didn’t quite work was Mullen’s autonomous…sled. One could call it a vehicle or bot, but really it was a wheeled labor of love, albeit love that wasn’t reciprocated, which is how I found myself alone with Mullen as the sun set on the asphalt snaking around Thunderhill’s green hills.
“How’s your bot doing?” I asked, knowing Mullen had already loaded it into the back of his truck. Mullen sold his autonomous vehicle simulation company two years ago, so he’s got nothing to prove.
“Alex,” he replied, “are you allowed to be pessimistic about self-driving cars?”
“Of course I am,” I said. “but I’m not pessimistic at all. I wouldn’t have joined Argo if I was a pessimist. Why would I be? I couldn’t be more optimistic about self-driving cars. Is there anyone who doesn’t think they’re inevitable? Of course not. The questions are where, when and how. If you boil self-driving down to just one question, all we’re arguing about is who’s going to make the business work. It isn’t going to be one company, it’s going to be a few. And some of them don’t even exist yet. There’s always a new idea out there, some brilliant kid no one knows yet. Maybe they need money. Maybe they want to join Argo.”
“Is that why you came?” asked a guy I didn’t know at the next table, whose eyes furtively darted to my four-hour old bag of leftover Taco Bell.
“You never know who you’re going to meet here,” I said. “Hungry?”
Alex Roy loves driving, self-driving, and commuting in his Tesla. He is also the Director of Special Operations at Argo AI, host of the No Parking & Autonocast podcasts, editor-at-large at The Drive, founder of the Human Driving Association, author of The Driver, and Producer of APEX: The Secret Race Across America. He held the Cannonball Run record from 2006-2013. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.