Once a year, the bucolic grounds of Goodwood House in West Sussex, England, are consumed by the smell of exhaust fumes, the sound of engines revving, and an excited crowd of 100,000 people, all wanting a look at the special cars on show. They gather here because Charles Gordon-Lennox, the 11th Duke of Richmond, likes to occasionally open his home to host the Goodwood Festival of Speed, a celebration of all the history, the heritage, and the future of motor racing.
This week, among the supercars, hypercars, and pure racing cars, Goodwood visitors will spot a low, black machine streaking in near silence up the winding driveway to the estate, which for the event is transformed into a 1.16-mile hill climb track.
“We’re pretty sure when the car appears, people will freak out,” says Rod Chong, deputy CEO of Roborace. And it will be the first machine to give the hill climb a try without a human in command, so there are some nerves. “We aren’t sleeping very well right now,” Chong says.
Robocar is an autonomous race car developed by Roborace, which is starting the world’s first motorsports series for self-driving cars. Its vehicle doesn’t have the constraint of keeping a human driver safe, so the design team—led by Daniel Simon, known for his work on Tron: Legacy—dropped the cockpit and whittled away the central spine of the vehicle. The wheels flare out at the corners, behind huge aero ducts.
Roborace first unveiled its car in February 2017, with long-term plans to build a whole bunch, and pit them against one another on a track. The design uses four electric motors for a total of more than 500 horsepower. As in most self-driving prototypes, a computer tries to make sense of the world with input from lidar, GPS, cameras, and radar. Teams who want to race will use the same hardware platform but will design their own software, looking for a racing edge.
Robocar was built to run on professional race courses used by Formula E, the electric racing series with which Roborace is associated. It’s designed for neat and tidy pavement, clear road edges, and immobile crash barriers that can be used as reference points. Here, it will have none of those things. “The challenge with Goodwood is that it’s a temporary structure that only gets built up the week of the event,” Chong says. His car will have to contend with indistinct grass curbs and protective hay bales that might move if someone else crashes into them or they get kicked by the crowd.
The first big test at Goodwood comes Monday, when the team will run the track in a private test, ahead of the show days on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. “Monday is the first time we’ll have tested in the real environment,” says Bryn Balcombe, Roborace’s chief strategy officer.
The biggest issue the team anticipates is the trees. The canopy is so thick over the driveway that satellite GPS signals can’t make it through the leaves, which means the car won’t be able to accurately map its position. Instea, the team has written software for the hill climb that relies on lidar laser sensors for real-time environment perception. Luckily, running on the Formula E race track last December in Hong Kong gave them some experience to build on. There, the tall buildings posed a similar obstacle to GPS reception.
At Goodwood, the Roborace team plans to run the course very early each morning, before things get started, just to rescan it and check if any bales have shifted. Then they’ll run the car in whatever slot they’re assigned, in between the groups of touring cars, 1950s Formula 1 cars, the road-going racers, and whatever other magnificent vehicles make the trip.
For this year’s outing, the team isn’t looking to set any records. They’ll be happy just to drive, and complete, the course three days in a row. That’s not to say they’re taking it slow. “We want to run to a good level of speed—it’ll be visually exciting, believe me,” Chong says. But really it’s a proof of concept and a chance to remind a petrol-head crowd that the future might be electric and autonomous, but it will definitely still be fun.
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