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Could a robot beat Lewis Hamilton?

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Are Formula 1 drivers about to become the next professionals to face competition from robots? It may sound far-fetched, but a British company called Kinetik has developed an AI-controlled racing car that could, one day, take on the likes of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel.

They recently unveiled Robocar – the world’s first self-driving racing car. The plan is for several of these to compete in their own series – called ‘Roborace’ – alongside the all-electric Formula E championship, which is now in its third season.

As you would expect, everything about the Robocar is futuristic. It’s essentially a supercomputer on wheels: its Nvidia Drive PX 2 ‘brain’ is capable of 24 trillion operations per second – and, with a top speed of 199 miles per hour, it will need all that fast thinking. It also has 360-degree vision, courtesy of an array of sensors and cameras, as well as satellite navigation. It’s powered by electricity, with four motors and a 540-kilowatt battery.

And for that extra sci-fi look, it’s designed by Daniel Simon, the man behind the vehicles in Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. You might have seen it on Top Gear recently:

Of course, Robocar’s job isn’t just to look good, or even to go fast. Its job is to race against other Robocars – and win. That means not only getting around a track quickly and without crashing, but also overtaking and defending its position. All the things we see Hamilton, Vettel and the rest do every other Sunday.

Earlier this year, at Silverstone, two prototype ‘Devbots’ made history. One took its own decision to overtake the other, and pulled off the manoeuvre smoothly. Two Devbots later took part in a demonstration at the Buenos Aires ePrix in February, dubbed ‘the world’s first AI race’. It was the first time two fully-autonomous racing cars had taken to the track together in public – though it didn’t end well for one of them.

The pace was relatively steady, with speeds of up to 115mph, but the car in second place pushed a little too hard to close the gap to the leader, and crashed into the barrier at one of the turns. Of course, one of the benefits of roboracing is that, although the crash was no doubt expensive, there was no need to worry about the driver being injured. And what would motor racing be without the occasional exciting incident?

The Roborace team are continuing to test and develop their technology. A fully-fledged race between a field of AI-controlled cars is still a little way off, but we all know how quickly the world of robotics is advancing. How long before a Robocar can do to Lewis Hamilton what Deep Blue did to Gary Kasparov 20 years ago?

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