The Formula E electric motor racing series is adding a robotic opening act: autonomous cars will race just before the human-driven race begins. The races, scheduled for the 2016-2017 season, will comprise a parallel championship called ROBORACE.

The robo-cars won’t have the same specifications as the human-driven ones. Free from the burden of meat and safety hardware, the robot cars could have an hours' endurance, organizers say, which is about double that of last year's human-driven Formula E cars.

What they gain in endurance, they lose in human decision-making power. But already, Formula E engineers and mechanics attributed a lot of their success—and failures—to their power-management algorithms (see "A New Formula for Formula E", IEEE Spectrum, October 2015). With human drivers out of the picture, and all teams using the same hardware, the differences between each team's driving algorithms will dominate ROBORACE.

The London-based venture capital firm funding ROBORACE, Kinetik, predicts that the cars will top 300 kph (186 mph), reports Wired UK. That is a bit higher than the speeds sustained by Formula E cars. Kinetik recently invested in a British company designing EV tech for trucks and buses.

Unlike Formula E's human-driven cars, which organizers designed to mimic previous generations of gasoline-powered racing vehicles, these robots could have more exotic—and efficient—aerodynamics. Organizers will invite a "community" team of software and hardware enthusiasts to compete, too. Formula E organizers revealed few other technical details. Perhaps some of the students who used to race in the recently cancelled Formula E “schools series” can try to get in on that.

No word yet on when the series will conduct a face-off between top robot and human drivers.

The Conversation (0)

We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images
Green

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

Keep Reading ↓Show less