Perfect Line of Code for Drivers

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From the January 2023 issue of Car and Driver.

There is only one question FAQ page for Self Racing Cars (SRC) website: “Why did I come to watch this? It seems boring.” I thought the same thing when I was invited to see the SRC group at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Why am I watching that? But the SRC event coincided with the Velocity Invitational, a gathering of vintage race cars that sounded pretty uninspiring, so I headed to Monterey to see what self-driving race cars look like at Corkscrew.

Backwards is the answer, at least for the Lexus CT presented by Point One Navigation. The red hatchback was running backwards—and in Reverse. “Our test driver said it was faster than him,” said Daniel Gruver, director of product for Point One. Well, of course, the camera-mounted CT has eyes in the back of its head and it doesn’t hurt to feel like climbing the famous Laguna hill, taillights first.

It turns out that SRC’s racing section is a little misguided, or, as SRC founder Joshua Schachter puts it, “aspirational.” Schachter organized the SRC as a competition not for driving but for engineering, an opportunity for developers and others working in the autonomous field to collaborate and test in a traffic-free environment. Some cars drive themselves, others work via remote controls, and some are driven by humans as they collect data for future projects. One SRC “racer” is an engineer who plays with autonomy in his personal Porsche 911 GT3 for reasons he doesn’t want to talk about. “It’s not ready yet,” her friend told me.

As we keep hearing, most autonomies aren’t ready for the roads or even the roads. Self-driving cars are not in a place where they can tear up the track, actively blocking and making split-second decisions to cross peaks and climb walls like NASCAR driver Ross Chastain did in October. “Racing dynamically is very important,” said Gruver. “Humans are really good at this.” Most SRC engines rely on human drivers to map lines, and the challenge is to combine software and hardware to make the most of that mapping. For Point One, the mapping is, er, point one, because the company specializes in very accurate navigation systems. Testing on the track is a good way to see how well the program can recognize coordinates down to a few centimeters. “Normal GPS accuracy is maybe three meters,” Gruver said. That can put you 10 feet from the racing line. Point One is trying to get its map within three centimeters.

Ain McKendrick, CEO of Faction Technology, is working on a small driverless EV to be used as a remotely operated delivery vehicle. “Sitting in traffic to return a rental car at the airport or drop off a DoorDash—that’s not driving anyone wants to do. Plus, robots aren’t going to eat your fries.” He said several exotic hypercar companies have also expressed interest in Faction technology. “For a performance car, can reposition it in the garage or show you [better] line on track. Once you have a digital car, the possibilities are quite wide.”

A very analogue 1971 Mini Cooper sits a few stalls away, its roof all frog-faced with zip-tied cubes and cylinders. Adam Rodnitzky of Tangram Vision uses his Mini—his own—as a rolling test bed to verify the company’s software. It stitches information from roof-mounted sensors, including lidar, radar, and 3-D cameras, onto a topographical map of the car’s surroundings. Rodnitzky gave me a ride and admitted he enjoyed the event as a reason to follow his own path. Many SRC participants are really driving enthusiasts, he said. “We know autonomy is coming, and you can get bitter about it or figure out how to make it work with what you like.”

Self-racing cars may seem boring, but the people who build them definitely aren’t.

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