Nvidia to Supply Robocar Brains for Roborace Formula E Series

Nvidia's Drive PX 2 system will be standard in all 10 Roborace cars

Illustration: Daniel Simon/Roborace
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Nvidia’s chief executive says its self-driving system will be installed in all the cars in the Roborace Formula E series, an all-robotic, all-electric variant of Formula One that’s to begin by early next year.

In a speech on Tuesday at the GPU Technology Conference, in San Jose, Calif., Jen-Hsun Huang said his company’s Drive PX 2 system would be standard in all the cars that the 10 Roborace teams will manage. The hardware, which was unveiled in January at CES, can be held in one hand and can perform 24 trillion operations per second while wrangling data from a dozen cameras as well as radar sets and LIDAR.

When the original developer’s kit was released a year ago, Michael Houston, the technical lead for the project, told IEEE Spectrum that the system could accommodate knowledge gleaned from deep learning, a method that uses reiterative analysis to discover patterns in masses of data. “Deep learning has different applications,” he said. “The focus has been on the visual analysis of imaging in video—web science, embedded systems and automotive. Fundamentally, we’re processing pixels.”

A form of deep learning was behind the self-taught mastery of Google’s AlphaGo, which last month defeated one of the world’s leading masters of the game of Go. Before then, Google had used similar methods to defeat a slew of computer games. Nvidia is, of course, a leading supplier of graphics processing units, many of which find their way into gaming consoles.

Roborace aims to increase the craziness of car racing by removing the one remaining safety problem: the guy in the cockpit. Without him to worry about the car can be sleeker, faster, hotter, and more maneuverable. Designers could, for example, put wind-tunnel apertures where the cockpit might have been, should that arrangement be helpful. Or cool to look at. All the cars will be physically identical, though—only the software will vary.

That means AI will be the main point. A coolly calculating algorithm—running on silicon without the encumberance of a carbon-based nervous system—ought to be able to pilot a car more adroitly than any mere human. At least, that’s the theory.

However, in a test drive he conducted last year, Spectrum’s Lawrence Ulrich was able to beat Audi’s robotic RS7 racecar on a racetrack near Barcelona. “Please, Lord, don’t let me lose to a stinking machine,” he said to himself. Heaven smiled on him: Ulrich beat the robot car by 4 seconds.

This post was corrected on 11 April.

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