The Man Behind Driverless Race Cars
In Denis Sverdlov’s world, race cars don’t need drivers, rather only computer scientists and software. He’s betting that graphical chip maker Nvidia can provide the brainpower that his driverless cars need to successfully navigate an urban race track at high speeds.
Thus, Sverdlov’s London-based investment fund Kinetik is backing Roborace, a driverless car championship that will be featured on the international Formula E all-electric race circuit during the 2016-2017 series, which takes off in the fall. When the driverless race series was first announced in November, organizers provided few details about how the first commercial race to use self-driving technology would actually be pulled off.
Now we know that Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 supercomputer will be the brains of each race car. Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang made the announcement on Tuesday during his keynote address at the chip maker’s GPU Technology Conference in San Jose. One of the companies Kinetik has invested in, the electric truck maker Charge, will provide electrified trucks to service the robo-racers.
Roborace will be designed to be entertaining; Sverdlov actually calls these races “shows” and told Fortune that he wants this to appeal to a young audience. But there is more at stake than getting teenagers interested in motorsports or computer science.
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The races will be an important test bed for artificial intelligence and other self-driving car technologies such as the sensors, radar, and cameras embedded in the cars. It’s also meaningful for Nvidia, a company that is trying to be more than just the dominant provider of graphics chips used in the gaming industry.
In traditional motorsports like Formula One, millions of dollars are spent on the hardware of the car. Sverdlov, the former CEO of Russian wireless broadband provider Yota and the creator of the Yotaphone, says those kinds of investments are wasteful because none of it can be used in production cars or on normal roads. He insisted to Fortune that Roborace will be different.
“We didn’t want this to be a hardware competition,” said Sverdlov during an interview at the GPU Technology Conference. “This is all about software. Software engineers create their own algorithms and test them in extreme conditions. It’s not about the fastest motor, but the smartest people.”
To be clear, these are not remote-controlled cars. Software engineers develop the artificial intelligence algorithm for a particular race. Once the brains are placed in the car, the engineers no longer have any control over the vehicle.
The race will have 10 teams, each with two driverless cars equipped with the Nvidia Drive PX 2 in one-hour races. Every team will have identical 2,200-pound cars designed by automotive futurist Daniel Simon. Only the software will different.
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“We want to show that these cars can do crazy complicated things in an extreme environment, which would help prove that driverless cars could be very safe on normal roads,” Sverdlov explained. “We really believe everything that is made here for this championship will go directly to regular street cars.”
The teams will include major automakers, technology companies, and established motorsport racing teams. Roborace has already has more than 30 requests from companies to have a team, which doesn’t surprise Sverdlov. “Any automaker that doesn’t have, or isn’t developing, driverless technology doesn’t have a future,” Sverdlov remarked.
Roborace will also have one or two slots each race for small startups to compete. A small startup can submit a virtual algorithm. Those who win the qualifying round make it to an actual race. Sverdlov noted teams will be announced in June.
Race championships often have crashes—it’s one reason people watch them. But driverless race cars that crash could cause distrust in the technology. Sverdlov thinks he’s found a way to keep races entertaining without hurting the larger mission. He told Fortune that there will probably be two different formats.
“One will be about the safety and the other one will be called ‘fight mode’ where the cars can behave quite aggressively,” he explained. “We really want to involve our technology partners to work out the right balance between safety and the show.”