What does a fully autonomous, electric, high-performance race car have to do with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?
For starters, the vehicle, developed by Roborace, is providing a testing ground for new efforts to build public trust in how next-generation vehicles could improve road safety and reduce the 1.35 million annual road deaths worldwide (SDG 3.6). Increased use of autonomous, electric, connected vehicles could also reduce emissions, improve traffic flows — and provide affordable, safe and sustainable transport systems to underdeveloped nations (SDG 11.2).
But how do we go from race track to the road?
A panel of experts – Bryn Balcombe, CSO at Roborace and Founder of the Autonomous Drivers Alliance; Lucas di Grassi, Formula-E World Champion and CEO at Roborace; and Fred Werner, Head of Strategic Engagement at ITU’s Standardization Bureau – met at Web Summit 2019 to discuss how AI will make our roads safer, and how ITU is helping lead the charge.
Pointing to the speed of advances in the automotive industry, Lucas di Grassi predicted that in the not too distant future, your child will be driven to school by a car designed using the best characteristics of every racing driver in the world – from Rally to Formula One to Formula E.
“The next big thing in safety will be autonomous driving; you take the human element out.” – Lucas di Grassi, Formula-E World Champion and CEO at Roborace
“What happened in the last 10 years in the automotive industry, it changed more than it did the previous hundred, and the next 10 will be even more changes to come,” he said.
“Motorsport is a laboratory for all the technologies which will make the car faster, but also safer like ABS, braking, seatbelts, [and] like all types of crash tests and structural tests, and so on,” said di Grassi. “The next big thing in safety will be autonomous driving; you take the human element out.”
Roborace is one arena where this technology is being developed. The global racing championship is the world’s first competition where teams of AI developers programme autonomous electric vehicles to race around the track. The teams share the same hardware – the DevBot, a bespoke racing car developed by Roborace – so the only differentiator is the team’s customized AI algorithm that they develop for the competition.
But why is a racing competition the best place to develop this technology?
“If you look at where the industry is going, electric, connected and autonomous are the three mega trends for the automotive industry,” said Bryn Balcombe. “The best way to engage the public in the debate around technology is to have an entertaining sport – something that they can watch and enjoy and then you can communicate to them about the messaging in the background.”
To take the technology from the controlled environment of a race track to the road, international collaboration to develop performance and safety standards for AI-driven vehicles will be crucial.
A new ITU Focus Group on ‘AI for autonomous and assisted driving’ will work towards the establishment of international standards that will monitor and assess the performance of the AI ‘drivers’ steering automated vehicles.
The aim is to create the equivalent of a driving license for AI drivers – an idea that originated at the AI for Good Global Summit.
“That initiative has really come from our perspective in motor sport. How do we regulate the technology but also regulate the drivers and driver behaviour. And then how do we take that driver behaviour monitoring that we’ve looked at and apply that to the roads so that we can ensure that the eye on the road is always safe?” said Balcombe.
And according to Fred Werner, that is exactly what the summit is designed for – to generate and gather support for AI for Good projects.
“The AI for Good Global Summit is very much aligned with that vision of trying to identify practical applications of AI and how they can be used to advance Sustainable Development Goals,” said Werner.
For the Roborace team, the significance of automated vehicles is clear: safer roads and greater mobility for all.
“The implications are huge; what are doing is just the tip of the iceberg,” said di Grassi.