U.K.-based start-up Roborace recently unveiled the world's first completely autonomous race car at Mobile World Congress 2017. While the company hopes to feature its new technology on a race course one day soon, its aspirations are much higher than simply providing motorsports entertainment. The new car could help provide the next round of innovation for the auto industry.

A top-view of the new Robocar, with no cockpit and an on-board computer and sensor array replacing a driver.

Image source: Roborace.

Innovation on the track becomes a staple

The idea of using research from the racetrack in consumer vehicles is not new. Many features on the cars we drive every day got their start in the world of motorsports.

Spectacular crashes are often cited by fans as a favorite part of racing. Wrecks off the track, not so much. Safety innovations like roll cages keep professional drivers safe and able to walk away from those racetrack wrecks, and that safety technology has become an integral part of everyday vehicles as well.

Tires, another "safety" feature, are the glue that keeps cars stuck to the road. Your tires likely look very little like the typical racing slicks on high-performance race cars. However, the grooves on your tires likely got their start on a course somewhere. Racing teams have developed different tread patterns over the years for various conditions like rain, ice, and off-road. Different rubber types devised to maximize the life of the tire have also made their way into general tires for sale.

Myriad other features from the track are now in production cars, things essential to the modern vehicle like disc brakes as well as less essential items like push-button ignition and automatic transmissions with a manual shift mode. But a new type of race is helping fuel change at a deeper level.

Racing for the 21st century

Back in 2014, the FIA (or Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) started up Formula E, a new racing league designed to showcase racing technology and all-electric vehicles. During the first season, all of the teams used the same car and powertrain, but since then, things have been opened up to allow for tweaking and testing.

Several high-profile manufacturers have begun producing and testing electric motors and related solutions. The teams include Audi, Jaguar, and Renault. It is in this setting that Roborace got its start, showing off its development vehicles, called DevBots. The cars are self-driving, but they also have a cockpit so an engineer can take the wheel and do in-drive diagnostics.

A DevBot pictured in black. The car has a cockpit, unlike the Robocar, allowing an engineer to take control and drive if needed.

Roborace's DevBot. Image source: Roborace.

Roborace has been demonstrating the DevBots on the Formula E circuit over the last couple of years, including a recent outing in which two driverless DevBots raced each other around the course. The match ended with one car crashing into a wall, but the race was still deemed a success. Why? One of the DevBots recognized and maneuvered around a dog that had wandered onto the track, and the two vehicles began to recognize and react to the other car's movements rather than simply race around the track as if alone.

That is a win for the world of autonomous driving, as the artificial intelligence in the DevBots is pushing the limits of the technology. That tech was transferred to Roborace's newest and more advanced project, the Robocar.

What is the Robocar?

Robocar is a completely autonomous racer, devoid of any cockpit or on-board human controls. Instead, an expansive array of radar and cameras will run the show. The powertrain is all-electric and can reach speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour. The Robocar has a number of sponsors, including tire maker Michelin, electric vehicle technologist Charge, and chipmaker Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA).

The Robocar, pictured here in green and black, has no cockpit for a driver.

The new Roborace Robocar. Image source: Nvidia.

It is Nvidia and its Drive PX2 chip that are the real stars of this machine. The car's ability to process the data from the sensors and its on-board artificial intelligence will eliminate the need for a driver. Instead, Roborace's vision is that the pit team will include techies running their software and diagnostics through the Nvidia-powered brain of the Robocar.

Longer term, the ambition is that a driverless race circuit will get started up as a part of Formula E. That might be a few years away, but Roborace will soon expand its DevBot demo to three or four cars, further paving the way for a full-blown event. In keeping with Robocar's mission, the Nvidia chip and programming team would continue to be the stars in that future race.

A future with fully autonomous cars on the road may be closer than you think. With technology on the track pushing the limits of what is possible and teaching developers more with each lap, it's only a matter of time before more of those breakthroughs start showing up in production vehicles. That's exciting news for autonomous-driver enthusiasts and investors alike.

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that race cars do not have air bags.

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