Abu Dhabi launches world's biggest race for self-driving cars at Gitex

The inaugural Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League will feature 10 teams from around the world that will compete using a specially built Dallara Super Formula car

The Dallara Super Formula SF23 car, which has been built specifically for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League. Leslie Pableo / The National
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Abu Dhabi has formally launched what it is calling the world's biggest racing league for self-driving cars powered by artificial intelligence in a move aimed at promoting driverless technology.

The Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) will be held on April 28, 2024, at the Yas Marina Circuit, with 10 teams vying for prizes amounting to $2.25 million, Aspire, the programme development arm of the UAE capital's Advanced Technology Research Council, said at the Gitex Global technology conference on Monday.

The teams will comprise universities and research organisations from the UAE, China, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Singapore, Switzerland and the US.

The league will be supported by the Japan Race Promotion, which manages the Japanese Super Formula Championship.

Teams will be granted exclusive access to a brand new Dallara Super Formula SF23 car developed by the Italian company, which has been given self-driving capabilities specifically for the league.

The car is manufactured using sustainable biocomposite materials, weighs 690kg and is currently the fastest open-wheel racer in the world after Formula One vehicles, reaching maximum speeds of 300kph.

The 10 teams will have the opportunity to adapt the software algorithms of their race car.

"We combine talent, technology and extreme sports in order to forge a pathway to the future of mobility," Aspire's executive director Tom McCarthy said at the launch.

"We will combine state-of-the-art motor racing parts with robotic technology and AI to deliver an extreme sporting experience."

The A2RL is expected to also branch out to other sectors linked to Abu Dhabi's research and development and hobby ecosystems to promote the advancement of innovation and AI, he said.

"Our racing is not just applicable to transportation. It is also useful in advancing sectors such as health care and logistics. And to that end, in addition to car racing, we will stage autonomous drone racing and autonomous buggy racing," Mr McCarthy said.

"We will also stimulate the interest of youth by organising Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] racers where high school students can compete using scaled down versions of this car and race autonomously."

The league, first announced in March, wants to provide a new way to watch motor racing.

Spectators will have access to virtual reality and augmented reality technology, allowing them to get in the driver's seat and see the action firsthand, with live updates and real-time displays shown on screen.

It is early days for the new strand of motorsport but autonomous racing leagues and events are coming up around the world.

The annual Indy Autonomous Challenge, hosted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the US from 2021, is the first to host a competition involving self-driving cars.

Organisers of the IAC event say they were inspired by those who took part in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency Grand Challenge, which had a $1 million prize in 2004.

That competition of mostly university-affiliated teams gave rise to the modern self-driving vehicle industry.

Aspire, the organisers of Abu Dhabi's new league, are taking a similar approach, opening to all teams from previous self-driving car competitions, as well as universities and public and private research institutions.

"No driver, no central control – just the coders racing against each other at breakneck speed around the iconic Yas Marina Circuit," Mr McCarthy said.

Aspire is looking to develop other race formats in the future with the help of the latest technology, he said.

"We are listening to the industry and together with them we are designing race formats that will, in essence, be real-world experiments where we will demonstrate ... what autonomous systems can achieve," he said.

"And, in that way, give consumer confidence to having these put into production cars. Our racing will see advanced technology, robotics and autonomous systems introduced into production cars sooner."

Updated: October 16, 2023, 12:29 PM