Over the past few years automated vehicle navigation has actually become a reality thanks to creative minds like those over at Google. They have proven with their “driverless vehicle” technology that a vehicle is capable of navigating itself, sans driver interaction, in, around, behind, and in front of other obstacles (ergo, other vehicles, pedestrians, and structures) without creating mayhem and carnage. If this technology works on the street, it may someday be applicable to auto racing making it possible for race cars to operate constantly at their most optimum performance limits.
I’ll use NASCAR as an example in my hypothesis because the sanctioning body prides itself on maintaining rules and standards aimed at keeping equipment and vehicles the same for all race teams with the objective being to put any competition advantage on the shoulders of the drivers, engine builders and pit crews. NASCAR has also collaborated with Google on incorporating autonomous technology to the sport.
What if the actual driver was technology, or at the very least technology assisted? Computerized sensors would compensate for driver over or under reaction based on real time data taken from tire pressures, cornering loads and temperatures, track temperatures, grip, speed, braking, and the proximity of the race car to structures around it (other race cars, and the guard rails or barriers).
Let’s examine a vehicle entering a turn too fast and is about to slide up into the wall. The car’s computer system has already calculated the maximum speed for this turn based on historical data (recent laps around this track) and senses the car is over speeding and reacts by applying the brakes before the car the slide begins. This would be an advanced take on today’s anti skid technology available on passenger vehicles where the anti skid control activates after the skid has begun. The vehicle’s chances of hitting the wall via of sliding are greatly reduced if the slide never occurs.
I even see racing technology on a level where the individual cars would communicate with each other through a real time tracking database. If the lead car suddenly slows, the following cars’ computers would respond by slowing them down. These “smart” race cars would even be able to decide if going around a suddenly slowing vehicle would be the most advantageous maneuver and proceed to initiate the move. The possibility of “Big Ones” at tracks like Daytona and Talladega happening would be slim.
Traditional race fans will probably think this would make for some very boring “pack racing” because in an autonomous race environment driver capability or lack thereof would be removed from the equations and technology would have all cars the same. I don’t think so. The power of the engine, when or when not to attempt to gain a position, the strength and durability of the cars components, and pits stops would still leave avenues to capitalize on. Also the drivers could still be left with making the decision to improve their positions, the technology would assist by coordinating maximum power, and the position of the car to those around it to make the attempted maneuver materialize. The success of the maneuver would depend upon the reaction of the vehicles around the vehicle attempting the maneuver. Sensors could slow down or accelerate the vehicle depending upon the proximity of other speeding and maneuvering vehicles around it.
When an accident or debris on the track triggers a caution flag, the cars would automatically slow to caution speed under yellow flag made possible by communications between the sanctioning body’s track signaling system and the cars on board computer. When the caution period ends the cars would accelerate themselves back to maximum racing speed.
Speeding on pit road would go the way of the front bench seat in cars of yesteryear.
This technology of course would make fuel calculations and tire changes child’s play. Crew chiefs could abstract remaining fuel left to complete inches, and be alerted when tires were worn within inches of deterioration. Maximum utilization of tires alone could save teams hundreds of dollars per race. Without a doubt it would yield fewer damaged and demolished race cars; that alone would retain thousands of dollars in owner’s pockets. Less spent by owners to field a team would mean fewer burdens on sponsors. Fewer damaged track barriers would save track owners money and in turn could translate into cheaper ticket prices for fans.
The implementation of such high technology married with the most brilliant engineers, tuners, and designers in auto racing would in turn produce a more level racing field and more exciting lap by lap contests.
I welcome race car engineers, drivers, and fans to expound in the comment section on the contents of this post.
Autonomous racing may be more realistic than we realize.
Check out this TEDTALK by Chris Gerdes The Future Race Car