Over at Thunderhill Raceway Park in California, a very John Henry-kind of event took place, as a pro raceing driver and an autonomous car battled it out on the track.
If you’re a human (or any higher primate) you can be proud— the meatsack won. But only by a few seconds.
The race was conducted by Stanford University’s CARS (Center for Automotive Research— clever!) program, and headed by Chris Gerdes, who’s also an avid racing enthusiast. During the research, the biggest discovery was that human drivers are absolutely amazing. In fact, the mathematical algorithms that can determine the absolute ideal, fastest way around a track are routinely matched by human drivers. All by feel and muscle memory and intuition. As a result, they actually recorded brainwaves and electrical brain activity from racing drivers while driving to study to learn exactly how drivers do what they do.
These recordings were able to give them real-time information on the brain’s workload as they drove. And, for their tests at Laguna Seca, they used a 1960 Porsche Abarth Carerra, so I’m sure that at least gave good readings from the brain’s “this-car-is-amazing” center.
The racing system they developed with this input works strikingly well. Passengers even start to relax at 100+ MPH speeds with no one at the wheel, of which Gerdes says “We might have a tendency to put too much confidence in it… Wait wait! This was developed by a crazy professor and graduate students!”
While the robotic cars can be programmed to push a car to its limits, I suspect humans still have the edge because we’re capable of making the occasional bad decision that pays off. Some racing drivers know how to push a car and themselves just past their normal limits to get that much more- but it’s always a huge risk doing so. The algorithms don’t make bad decisions like that. Yet.
While this is very cool, I don’t think there’s anyone who wants to take the driver out of the equation for racing— that’s what it’s all about, after all— a person and a machine. I could see robot races and mixed robot-human races being a lot of fun, though. Plus, tracks could keep a fleet of robotic cars for practice purposes— they could be set for varying levels of competitiveness, and, unlike us moist skinbags, are free of the ego that often leads to really bad ideas and then flaming balls of melting car.