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Why Abu Dhabi is launching an ambitious new autonomous racing series

Abu Dhabi is poised to kick off a new series that is aimed at pushing the boundaries of autonomous racing which promises a ‘new era of sports entertainment’.

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Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) will establish a series of high-profile driverless races at the UAE’s Yas Marina Formula 1 track using cars from Japan’s premier open-wheel series, Super Formula, which can travel at over 185mph.

The first event is scheduled for 27 April and has been designed to showcase the remarkable pace of autonomous driving by bringing together the world’s best computer scientists, coders, and developers in competition.

The aim is to reshape the future of mobility by combining cutting-edge artificial intelligence using state-of-the-art sensors and computer technology. At stake is a $2.25 million prize purse, as teams battle to make their cars faster and drive smarter than the opposition.

The A2RL concept comes from the ASPIRE group, the programme management arm of the UAE capital’s Advanced Technology Research Council.

“This is something we’re investing in for the long term,” says ASPIRE’s executive director Tom McCarthy. “There have been attempts to do this, such as Indy Autonomous Challenge and Roborace, but the big challenge is yet to be addressed.

“They’ve made great strides, and we build on their shoulders, but what we want to see is a process that’s going to be here for many years. We want something that sees through the developmental technology and its application on the road.

“We’re making this real: Racing in public and creating something that’s fun. In that way we can bring about advances in science and technology, as well as consumer acceptance.

“We want to make sure our audience, whether at the track or online, is having a very rich and enjoyable experience.”

The spec Dallara EAV24 chassis, based on its Super Formula SF23 design, will be powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder racing engine, based on a two-litre Honda unit, delivering power through a six-speed gearbox.

The cars will feature seven 360-degree Sony cameras, four ZF ProWave radars, three Falcon Kinetic lidars, a high-level Neousys on-board computer with GPS.

The car has already been track-tested in Dubai with a real driver – ex-Red Bull F1 racer Daniil Kvyat – but the cockpit area of the machines are now packed with electronics as it gears up for racing events.

This ‘autonomous racing stack’ will move the car around the racetrack via a drive-by-wire system that operates the regular controls.

“This is going to be like doing a science experiment in public,” said McCarthy. “We wanted a car that had a real wow factor, and the Japanese Super Formula car was perfect as they’d just brought out a new Dallara chassis last year that we could develop for autonomous driving.

“The autonomous stack perceives the environment, sends the signals into the computer and then the real challenge for the teams is to program it so it acts on all those signals and instructs the actuators to control the car.

“The challenge for the coders is to fuse all that available data and harness it to run the car autonomously. Once the car fires up, it’s on its own – nobody can interfere with it.

“The only outside control, either by the team or race control, is the stop instruction on safety grounds. The car must complete tasks on the track, like overtaking another car, by itself.

“We’re going to be putting cars out together and asking them to do autonomous things, we’re inviting the public in to see what happens. We believe that can lead to acceptance about what is really possible.”

As well as launching its new motorsports series, with multiple cars on track at once, A2RL is designed to be research and development platform that can drive forwards the field of autonomous technology.

“In organising a motorsport event the grand challenge that we’re trying to address is actually around road safety,” added McCarthy. “We’ve seen huge advances in the technology of the cars that everyone drives but what we’ve not seen is a substantial decrease in road accidents and fatalities, they stay stubbornly high.

“We believe the big reason for that is the big gap between what the car can do and what the average driver can do. So, cars are safer when you crash, minimizing the consequences with crumple zones and extensive airbags, but what we’re going to focus on is avoiding the crash in the first place. Autonomous robotics and AI can bridge that gap, between car and driver, to bring about safer outcomes on the roads.

“To get there is not straightforward. We believe the cars of the future will continue to be driven by humans, and that driverless cars or taxis will be the minority, likely in urban areas going very slowly. At least in the next decade or two.

“We want to focus on the active driving. So, in the real world, we don’t want to take the driver out of the car, we want to keep the driver safer. To realise the potential is to push ahead in technological advances and to let drivers see this technology in action to accept it.”

To create the competition, teams have been assembled from the UAE, China, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United States, and they will begin with access to the supplied software on board the cars, which they can then build upon or replace as they see fit.

ASPIRE is promising a “mixed framework” of race formats as it proves out the concept of what it’s attempting to achieve. If successful, ASPIRE hopes to expand to a future calendar of racing with events in Europe and Asia as well as expansion into off-road buggy and drone racing in future.

“Ultimately we also want to gamify the experience,” said McCarthy. “We’ve developed a VR camera that we can put into the cars so people can have a virtual reality experience and we’ve developed an app and process so you can hop into a ghost car and race against what’s happening on the track.

“A vision of this would be to see monthly races in a virtual world happening in parallel to the three races we’ll hold per year. We’d like to create a whole ecosystem around this race, so it’s fun, educational as well as being developmental.”

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