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Utopia or dystopia? What’s motorsport’s future?

12 May 2017

You’re right in the middle of a pack of cars as they take off from the grid. You are just a millimetre from the car in front while on your left and right are cars jostling for position, again just millimetres away. As the cars approach the long, sweeping right turn, the formation remains tightly packed, just a cigarette paper separating each and every one. Down a short straight and then the pack splits. The car in front brakes hard and veers right, your own car also sharply brakes and follows the car in front.

Meanwhile the car on the right also turns right while the car on the left brakes hard and veers left and then right in a bizarre zigzag course. This tightly bunched pack of 10 cars is then separated like the seeds of a blown dandelion.

What has happened is that the group has hit the intersection of a figure of eight circuit, the other 10 cars on the grid having started on the opposite end of the circuit now approaching the same intersection, but from the left. The sensors on the roboracers go crazy as they try to cross each other’s path without colliding, an operation they will be facing again half a lap later, and then again and again, lap after lap.

Fantasy? Not if the scenario painted by Steve Sapsford, Ricardo’s global market sector director and the person responsible for the motorsport road map he has been responsible for composing and maintaining over many years, is correct.

As will be fully reported upon in the next (July) issue of Race Tech, Sapsford has a firm take on what we can expect motorsport to look like in the future. This is not to say that it is the only form of motorsport, but what we might expect in addition to what we see and enjoy today.

Naturally electrification comes into consideration, Sapsford commenting “although connectivity and autonomous are always talked about in the same breath they are not the same — you can be connected but you don’t have to be autonomous, although autonomous probably does have to be connected. However, together it’s a huge subject area for the vehicle manufacturers.”

He talks about the ownership of data. Will it be the OEMs or the software providers? “How that industry/value chain is going to settle down is a complete mystery because people are going to own data that’s going to be turned into information. Somebody’s got to write algorithms that’s deciding

Major questions that Sapsford says need to be addressed are how to ensure the vehicles are safe and that the software is safe. Because vehicles have a long life it will mean that they will have upgrades throughout their life, which may be done remotely, as happens with mobile phones and PCs. As we all know, though, this is not always a painless experience and can result in crashes or another “patch” being sent remotely. This simply cannot happen with vehicles.

“How are we going to prove that these vehicles are safe, that the software is safe, that when you go through an upgrade it remains safe because it’s whole life safety we need to be worried about?” says Sapsford. “At the moment we have annual tests to ensure the vehicle is still roadworthy, but how can that be applied in a semi-automated vehicle?”

This is where he believes that motorsport can play a role. “I think this can be introduced quite nicely and gently in motorsport as well. It’s relatively easy to imagine such systems being trialled in the pit lane, on an autonomous safety car and maybe even in shuffling the order on reforming after a safety car period because it all takes place in a controlled environment. I think there are opportunities there and I think it could be quite good fun developing it.”

For further thoughts on where the sport may be heading in the future, be sure to pick up a copy of the July issue of RACE TECH next month.

William Kimberley is the Editor of RACE TECH magazine.

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