What did you want to be when you grew up? For me, it was an F1 driver. The greatest job in the world. Hands down.
There are not many careers that can top the jet-set lifestyle of a professional race driver, drinking champagne on private yachts in Monaco and competing in the most iconic race series of all time. It truly is a dream.
But I must return to the present day and my journalistic duties. Motorsport is far more important to the automotive industry than many people think. Beyond the adrenaline and entertainment, it has been vital to the development of the consumer market, passing down advanced technology to passenger cars through world-class research and development.
Most technology you find within your vehicle today has, at some point, trickled down from the motorsport world, which has pioneered revolutionary technology since its creation. This will continue, especially with the emergence of Formula e and the rise of electric vehicles within the mass-market, providing new innovations in the connected car and e-mobility space.
However, with the rise of automation and artificial intelligence, there is a new racing series in town. One with a bit of a difference. One that doesn’t require a driver…
Where’s The Driver?
Roborace was created in 2016 by Denis Sverdlov, a highly-successful Russian entrepreneur who saw the potential in a new market for autonomous racing. Yes, you heard correctly. A race series with no drivers.
Roborace is a revolutionary competition centred around autonomous and electric-powered racecars. The series has been following the Formula e season, testing technology and race formats after each stage to gather important information to take into its own competition.
Soon after Roborace started to gain traction, Sverdlov introduced Lucas Di Grassi, a decorated professional race driver-turned-businessman, as his personal advisory. By 2017, Sverdlov asked Di Grassi to become the new CEO of the company and drive the racing series into the limelight, to which he happily accepted. It was very clear to Di Grassi that it would be incredibly difficult to run the company full time, mainly due to having a few more years left on his professional racing contract. Nowadays, he still – somehow – manages to be effective both on and off of the track.
If you ever get a chance to speak to Di Grassi, you will instantly notice his professionalism and work ethic. He is clearly focused on what he has to do to develop Roborace into a global racing phenomenon that is, as he says so himself, “comprised of emotion, technology and entertainment.”
The Man Behind The Visor
It’s great to see someone involved in Roborace with such a motorsport-heavy background. And, in Di Grassi’s case, there are few people who can match the calibre of his CV. Standouts include being an F1 driver for Renault, a factory race driver at Audi, an FIA Formula E Championship driver for Audi Sport ABT Schaffler and is the only person who has been actively involved with internal combustion, electric, hybrid and autonomous race cars.
“As I evolved throughout my career, I always tried to understand what the vision of the industry was, trying to stay a step ahead and place my bets in technology that would later be adopted and cause a positive impact,” he says. “This technology contributes to a better planet, environmentally and economically.”
It is incredibly interesting to see how Di Grassi has managed to manoeuvre his way through each propulsion. Only 34 years old, he has already experienced a century of automotive development. For example, when Formula e was first proposed to him, he already had the experience of hybrids from racing supercars in Le Mans and knew the potential of electrification.
“No other racing driver in their professional career has gone from full-combustion racing in a V8, to hybrid, fully-electric and autonomous in under 10 years,” echoes Di Grassi. “I am very honoured to be in the middle of this transition and I think that there are exciting opportunities ahead. Formula e and Roborace are scratching the surface; there’s a lot more to come.”
Di Grassi is an illustration of how much has happened to the automotive industry in such a short space of time. Motorsport may be perceived as an egocentric sport, but it has a much broader purpose than people first realise. When it comes to autonomous software, Roborace is out to make a difference, on and off of the track.
Season Alpha: One Step At A Time
Whether its electrification, autonomous or even connected user experience, it all comes down to public perception. No one has ever experienced these innovations before, especially when it comes to autonomous software. Cars are becoming mobile phones on wheels, which can be a very scary prospect for consumers.
An autonomous competition such as Roborace will help overcome this by creating awareness, increasing knowledge and gaining trust from the public. Unsurprisingly, the sudden eruption of self-driving cars in the media has shocked a lot of people. Di Grassi respected this process and decided to make ‘Season Alpha’ a 50-50 robot-human championship.
“This mix of human racing and automated racing is easier for the public to understand and engage with than purely autonomous racing, at least for the first season, ” he says. “This decision was the biggest change I made since becoming CEO but the car being used in Season Alpha, by both human and AI drivers, has the same platform as our fully-autonomous car, so the software can be used without any adaptation.”
This is a stepping stone towards a complete lineup of autonomous race cars, but it allows a new fanbase to understand what Roborace is all about. Season Alpha is a preview into an innovative and unique entertainment offering like no other.
“When the technology is there and people are ready for this shift we can have a more advanced competition format,” Di Grassi explains. “Currently there is a limitation on how many cars you can race at the same time. This is why it is called Season Alpha; we see it as a preview to the end product which will grow and change as the capabilities of the technology improve.”
Death Of The Petrol Head?
The world is evolving at an alarming rate, across many industries. Entertainment such as music and gaming has adopted completely new characteristics, such as streaming and esports, which isn’t too different from the current state of the automotive industry.
“We want to create a new form of sport which makes a lot of sense when you look at the rise of e-sports, simulation, artificial intelligence and automation,” adds Di Grassi. “Due to this, Roborace fits perfectly in the future. We are a little bit ahead of our time, but it is better to be ahead than behind.”
Di Grassi thinks that it all comes down to different tastes. Motorsports, especially F1, has always had a committed following, but this may change as new competitions emerge. Formula e is still quite far behind F1, but it is showing positive growth each year.
“If people like F1 and dislike electric racing for any reason, they are fine,” says Di Grassi. “But what I can say is that the new generation does not really care about things such as noise.”
Most millennials are unsure if they even want to get their driving license, showing perhaps the largest shift in the automotive world. Although Di Grassi believes that it is up to people whether they want to adapt and progress, the world will move forward regardless and we must be ready for this new world.
“Motorsport will still survive. Even if we make an autonomous car that is better than any driver, people will still want to race. Roborace isn’t trying to replace motorsport but be a part of it,” he assures me.