Hit enter to search or ESC to close
Opinion

Will People Watch Autonomous Car Racing? We Asked An IndyCar Driver Working On The Technology

For the last few years people have been trying to sell me on the idea of autonomous race cars. I understand the appeal of Chris Andersons’s DIY Robocar series: they’re cheap, fit in your hand, and there’s trickle-up benefit to having different technologies race each other. What I don’t yet understand is the appeal of full-size autonomous cars costing six or seven figures racing each other, at least not based on what I’ve seen.

So I reached out to IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand to talk it out with Bryan and me on No Parking. JR’s a 10-time veteran of the Indy 500, which one might assume puts him squarely in the human racing camp, but beyond driving full-time for Dreyer and Reinbold Racing, he also moonlights at Stanford’s REVS Institute working on autonomous vehicle technology.

If anyone could make the case for autonomous racing, JR’s the guy.

My thesis was that people watch sports because they identify with the people. Communities identify with local teams, cities with their franchise, and countries with national teams. In sports like tennis or car racing, where a country might be represented by a single person, that human-to-human connection is even more important. We live vicariously through the people in the seat, pray for them when something goes wrong, and rejoice when they walk away. Remove the drivers, and there’s no one to root for and nothing at stake.

JR agreed, to a point: “There’s a human component to what we do that is super interesting. The car itself, the vehicle, whatever type and style it might be, whether it’s a 20-horsepower go-kart or it’s a 800-horsepower IndyCar, it’s an extension of you as a human. When everything is right, that’s what it is. There’s a great quote from [legendary driver] Graham Hill…I think the quote goes like, ‘I am the artist, the track is my canvas and the car is my brush.’”

He also argues that racing goes beyond “man in machine combat,” because advancements on the track expose larger changes in the automotive industry, and drive improvements of the cars we use every day. These advancements also drive development of the fully autonomous vehicles that will eventually be deployed on city streets.

OK, but none of that addresses the big question: would anyone want to watch two autonomous cars race each other?

“If you’re going to do autonomous racing,” JR replied, “I think that the conflict of human versus autonomous machine is the obvious, most interesting thing to see happen. But I think the machine being an extension of the human is still as far as the sport goes.”

I didn’t expect that, because it expounded on two controversial ideas: 1) that human race drivers will eventually see more driver assistance, which happened in the 1990s in Formula 1 until it fell out of favor, and 2) that a contest between human and machine is something he actually wants to see.

It seems obvious to me that eventually AI will advance to the point that no human driver can possibly win, and there wouldn’t be much entertainment value in it beyond a stunt. But of course we’ve not yet seen the racing equivalent of IBM’s Deep Blue beating chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov in front of an audience back in 1996. I’d be curious to see that… once. But just like Deep Blue didn’t kill human-versus-human chess as we know it, human racing isn’t going to evaporate even if an AI-driven car wins the Indy 500.

Why would it? People will always want to see people compete against each other, because that’s what inspires us to be better people. It’s human nature, which is something no machine can match.

Choose your lane

How Autonomous Vehicles Distinguish Between Bicycles and People Who Ride Them
Self-Driving

How Autonomous Vehicles Distinguish Between Bikes and People

When it comes to how autonomous vehicles see the world, humans come first, literally. Autonomous vehicles (AVs), like the kind operated by Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, use Machine Learning to detect and classify the objects in their surroundings, identifying people...
Why The League of American Bicyclists is optimistic about autonomous vehicles
Self-Driving

Why a Leading Cycling Advocacy Group Is Optimistic About Autonomous Vehicles

As autonomous vehicle use grows, AV companies and the League of American Bicyclists are collaborating on how to ensure cyclists and motorists can share the roads safely, even if the “motorist” is artificial intelligence software. As part of the...
Opinion

Self-Driving Is Arriving Right On Time. Just Like Ice Cream Did

Seven years ago, I was a self-driving skeptic. Not of the technology. Of all the “experts” promising autonomous vehicles would be everywhere by 2020. You didn’t need to be Nostradamus to know that was ridiculous. All you needed was...
Illustration of a futuristic parking deck turned into a mixed-use space, with AVs driving by
Business

How Autonomous Vehicles Could Help Transform Parking Lots

Researchers say it’s likely that autonomous vehicles (AVs) can help reduce the need for parking lots, opening more room for grass and trees and other elements of nature. It may not seem like it when you’re circling the block...
An illustration of an Argo autonomous vehicle in teal against a backdrop of buildings, a bicyclist, and research papers
Self-Driving

7 Big Breakthroughs From Argo Research at CVPR 2022

The 2022 Conference on Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (CVPR 2022) is nearly here. Thousands of computer scientists, software engineers, and researchers from around the globe will gather in New Orleans to review and discuss their latest work in...
Self-Driving

Researchers Predict the Future With Lidar Data

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Argo AI Center for Autonomous Vehicle Research, a private-public partnership funded by Argo for advancing the autonomous-vehicle (AV) field, say they have come up with a way to use lidar data to visualize not...

Must Reads