Man versus artificial intelligence in auto racing, closer to reality than fantasy


New York (AFP) – A race won by a driverless car, in the middle of machines operated by pilots: with the progress of artificial intelligence, the automobile competition between man and software is no longer a fantasy, but the pilots, the teams and the public will they follow?

At the end of last October, in Indianapolis, a single-seater of the Dallara brand, alone on the track, reached 250 km / h without a driver and without human assistance on the legendary Motor Speedway.

That same week, during testing at another Indianapolis circuit, three single-seaters, each controlled by software, had passed several times without incident.

Engineers specializing in the issue are convinced of this: it is now possible to imagine a race between man and artificial intelligence.

A mythical face-to-face like the one between, in 1996 and 1997, the world chess champion Garry Kasparov and the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer, the machine finally winning over man.

As it stands, the thing is already possible, from a security point of view, as long as the programmers « play it cautiously and agree to lose », advances Marko Bertogna, professor at Unimore University, in Italy, and in the head of the EuroRacing team which participated in October in Indianapolis the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC).

“But if I know whoever’s programming the car really wants to win, I wouldn’t go up against them” in another vehicle, he said. « It’s still too risky. »

Beyond the capture of geography and obstacles, already far superior to the human eye, the issue is above all the speed at which the software can analyze the data it receives.

The higher the vehicle speed, the shorter the reaction time.

« Fascinating »

Professor at the Politecnico University of Milan and at the head of the PoliMOVE team also engaged in the IAC, Sergio Matteo Savaresi believes that « within two years », a Formula 1 identical to that of Lewis Hamilton but driven by software could do the same time, in qualifying, as the seven-time F1 world champion.

“But that’s a whole different story for a multi-car race,” adds the academic and engineer, and we will still have to wait.

« For me, » says Sergio Matteo Savaresi, « ten years from now Formula 1 teams will probably have a human driver and artificial intelligence software » instead of two drivers today.

« At the beginning, we will surely be the fastest, but with time, things could change », anticipates George Russell, pilot of the Williams team, questioned during the Grand Prix of Brazil, in mid-November.

« But there wouldn’t be the human side, the passion, not much to get excited about, » he warns. “And whatever sport, football, rugby or F1, you want to see athletes compete against each other. Maybe we would have robot fans too. Well, that’s not for me. « 

Autonomous cars on the starting grid for the Indy Autonomous Challenge in Indianapolis on October 23, 2021

Autonomous cars on the starting grid for the Indy Autonomous Challenge in Indianapolis on October 23, 2021 Ed JONES AFP / Archives

CEO of Penske Entertainment, owner of the North American IndyCar Championship, the American F1, Mark Miles goes in the same direction.

« IndyCar is a sport which brings together machine and man, so for us, until further notice, it will be a championship with drivers, » he explained at the end of October.

Complementary offer

He sees autonomous cars more as a complementary offer to traditional races, a curiosity.

More than the appeal of an autonomous car in competition, Mark Miles is interested in the technological advances that artificial intelligence could bring to cars driven by men.

« So that an IndyCar can one day run at 400 or 480 km / h (the maximum speeds are currently around 370, editor’s note), it will undoubtedly be necessary to have perception and safety systems which do not yet exist in cars today, « said Paul Mitchell, CEO of Energy Systems Network and co-organizer of the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

Cars in grid position before the Indy Autonomous Challenge at Indianapolis Speedway, October 23, 2021

Cars in grid position before the Indy Autonomous Challenge at Indianapolis Speedway, October 23, 2021 Ed JONES AFP / Archives

But the public, at least for some of the spectators, is less timid.

« It would be fascinating » to see a human battling an autonomous car, enthusiastic Robert Plummer, who came to see the IAC at the end of October, on the circuit he has frequented since he was a child.

« One of the participants said his goal was to tackle the Indianapolis 500 miles within five to ten years, » he said, mentioning the premier event of motorsport in the United States.

Those who have thought about the matter, however, agree that the potential appeal of these races will only last for a while.

« When artificial intelligence has reached (then exceeded) the level of human (pilots), all of a sudden, the general public will lose interest » in racing.

Once Kasparov was beaten by Deep Blue, the idea of ​​a game of chess between a man and a computer did not interest many people.

« We would probably be racing against something that would always make the perfect lap, » says Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren driver. « And even though we’re good, we’re not perfect. So we’d probably lose our job. So let’s not go into this. »

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