Formula E

Straight from science fiction: ‘robocar’ racer believed set to be unveiled on Hong Kong streets on Formula E bill

Unique opportunity in pipeline for motor racing fans and tech heads to witness driverless ‘sci-fi’ racing machine whirring around city street circuit as part of the HKT Hong Kong ePrix weekend

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 1:05pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 September, 2016, 10:08am

Humans? Who needs humans? Hong Kong is about to overtaken by robots.

Organisers of the HKT Hong Kong ePrix are thought to be planning to unveil the world’s first robot electric race car as part of their activities over the weekend of October 8-9.

While details of exactly what shape this promotion might take are yet to be officially announced – whether it be a race between a number of these vehicles, simply a showcase of this new technology, or something else – a “Devbot” prototype driverless car has undergone rigorous testing at the Donington Park race track in the United Kingdom over the past few weeks as the Formula E circuit prepares for its 2016-17 season and for its debut around the Central Harbourfront next month.

“[Devbot] successfully completed a lap under full computer control and we’re all incredibly excited to see how it progresses over the course of the season,” Formula E said.

Formula E organisers have long held plans to stage a driverless race – using what is known as a Robocar – as part of their global circuit but are keeping tight-lipped about how far into the future such a competition might be. Reports – and video – from the UK show they are on the right track, at least. Roborace, which developed Robocar and the Devbot, and Formula E are separate entities.

“Unlike the Robocar, the DevBot has a cabin that can be driven by a human or a computer, allowing teams to fully understand how the car thinks and feels on a racetrack alongside the comprehensive real-time data,” Formula E said.

Watch: “Devbot” at Donington Park

“The DevBot is equipped with the same drivetrain, sensors, computation systems and communication technology as the Robocar...which will be revealed later this year.”

The basic idea is that a Roborace will eventually form part of the lead up to the ePrix, which for its Hong Kong debut will be staged alongside such other events as an electric-powered saloon car race for emerging drivers.

Roborace have for the past 12 months slowly been revealing both the design and their plans for these new driverless cars, fashioned out of the imagination of chief design officer Daniel Simon, renowned for his work on Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters such as Tron: Legacy (2010) and Oblivion (2013).

“We’re living in a time where the once separated worlds of the automobile and artificial intelligence collide with unstoppable force,” was Simon’s suitably spaced-out explanation earlier this year.

“It’s fantastic to be part of this journey; it triggers all my big passions – motor racing, design and advanced technologies.

“My goal was to create a vehicle that takes full advantage of the unusual opportunities of having no driver without ever compromising on beauty.

“Racing engineers and aerodynamicists have worked with me from the beginning to strike that balance. The Roborace is as much about competition as it is entertainment.”

It certainly fits within the sci-fi framework of motorsport’s newest series, setting itself for its third season and expanded now to include 10 cities across the globe, with New York joining Hong Kong among the five new stops on the circuit and two venues still to be confirmed.

The “Roborace” car revelations come amid calls by car industry leaders, including the great-grandson of Henry Ford, and public institutions to address ethical issues emerging in a world where robot cars will make increasingly complex decisions in real-life situations on the world’s roads.

“These cars will have the ability to process data and make decisions much faster than we will as humans,” said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Company, which has promised to have robot taxis on the road by 2021.

Watch: Ford Motor Company executive chairman Bill Ford

“No individual company is going to programme these vehicles with a set of ethics that isn’t bought into by society at large.”

The discussion to set robot-car ethics must include the car industry, government, universities and ethicists, said Ford.

With self-driving cars set to hit the road over the next five years, the need for this discussion was urgent, he said.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg