May the best AI win: Will Abu Dhabi's Autonomous Racing League change transportation?

Driverless vehicles will race at Yas Marina Circuit amid autonomous transportation technology push

The Dallara Super Formula SF23 car, which has been built specifically for the inaugural Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League, A2RL. Leslie Pableo / The National
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Coders are pounding away at keyboards and trying to ensure a victory for their team's vehicles ahead of the much-anticipated Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL), a self-driving vehicle race taking place at Yas Marina Circuit on April 27.

“Our racers are the coders,” said Thomas McCarthy, executive director of Aspire, organiser of the A2RL race and the programme management and business development pillar of Abu Dhabi's Advanced Technology Research Council.

Mr McCarthy is referring to the individuals making up eight teams from the UAE, Germany, Italy, Singapore, US, Hungary and China who have been spending time in Abu Dhabi as they prepare for the autonomous race at the notable Yas Marina Circuit.

“We invited teams from all over the world … but they had to have coding capability and motorsport knowledge to qualify,” he explained.

All the teams in the race will be using a Dallara Super Formula SF23, built by Dallara, which includes bespoke, self-driving capabilities designed specifically for A2RL.

According to race organisers, it's the fastest open-wheel race car in the world besides the Formula One car.

“We're calling it the Emirates Autonomous Vehicle,” Mr McCarthy said during an interview with The National's Business Extra podcast, noting that the race car is manufactured using sustainable biocomposite materials, and weighs in at 690kg.

“We take great care to make sure each car is precisely identical in every way, and the teams aren't even allowed to bring spanners into the garage,” he said. “It's all about the coding that differentiates the cars.”

Although the vehicles are made from sustainable materials, they have all the power and noise associated with the internal combustion engine, and are not to be confused with electronic vehicles.

“If you pass by the Yas Marina Circuit you'll hear a lot of noise,” Mr McCarthy said, noting that A2RC hopes to continue to develop different vehicles to race over time.

“This is the very first step in what we're doing. It's a test bed platform on which future technology innovations will be tested,” he added.

Eventually, Mr McCarthy said the racing league plans to branch out and host races consisting of autonomous drones and other autonomous modes of transportation.

The autonomous race taking place in the UAE is the latest in a string of moves seeking to bolster the country's presence in terms of autonomous transportation technology.

Last July, the UAE Cabinet approved the first preliminary national licence for self-driving cars, and just a few months prior, a fleet of five electrical cars mapped out roads of Dubai to help execute plans for the eventual roll-out of autonomous public transport.

Globally, the hopes and promises presented by autonomous transportation have generated ample excitement, both in terms of qualitative benefits and economic rewards.

The value of the global autonomous vehicle market is forecast to top $1.8 trillion by 2030, from about $94.4 billion in 2021, growing at a compound annual rate of almost 39 per cent, according to data from Precedence Research.

Not to be overlooked, however, are the various concerns and problems that have arisen from implementation of the technology.

In the US, Tesla, widely seen as a leader in the autonomous technology field, was forced to recall 362,000 of its vehicles last year after US regulators found safety problems in the company's Full Self-Driving (FSD) software.

Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League is up and running

Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League is up and running

Tesla later provided an over-the-air software update, but the problem highlighted the chasm between the fast-paced technological advances and the regulators who are tasked with ensuring safe transportations.

Mr McCarthy noted the concerns surrounding autonomous technology and emphasised the need to use nuance when implementing and developing the technology.

“We don't see the future as driverless, that's the wrong way to approach things,” he explained. “We believe that there is huge potential that autonomous technologies will improve road safety.

“We want to improve driving so that crashes don't happen, and we believe that can happen if you and I are prepared to accept a co-pilot that is autonomous,” Mr McCarthy explained, stressing the need for humans to still be involved in driving.

As for the forthcoming race on April 27, Mr McCarthy said that like conventional motorsport races featuring human drivers, he can't rule out the possibility that some of the autonomous vehicles might crash.

“You're going to see for the first time, many autonomous cars on the track together, there's never been more than two before,” he said. “Of course, that comes with the risk that there will be crash because cars can crash when they try to pass one another at high speeds.”

Artificial intelligence is also adding an element of intrigue to the race, with the vehicles continuing to evolve during the practice runs at Yas Marina Circuit, Mr McCarthy said.

“Every time that car practices on that track, it learns something new about that track,” he said, noting how the coders are able to leverage AI to tweak their code and improve their vehicles. “There's a constant improvement,” he added, while also noting that the teams don't have to factor in various human elements for the race.

“The driver, in this case, the AI, it never gets tired,” he said.

Updated: April 22, 2024, 11:50 AM