Taking a vehicle to the race track to improve it has been a thing for almost as long as we've had cars. Henry Ford built his brand's name on his early racing exploits, and so have countless others. So it's natural that some of the people interested in self-driving cars have been thinking about how the track can benefit this new technology. Joshua Schachter is one such person, and he's organizing the first autonomous track day, to be held on May 28th-29th at Thunderhill Raceway in Willow, California.
Self-driving cars and racing are two of my favorite things, so I spoke to Schachter to find out more. The idea is to create a venue where you can "run what you brung," whether it's a fully autonomous car (or kart), a set of sensors, or maybe some control software. "If you squint at it, and it's automotive, come try it on the track," he said.Interest in autonomous race cars is starting to build. Later this year, a series called will support Formula E in 2016-2017, for example. But Roborace will provide all the teams with identical cars; the job of the teams will be to write algorithms to make their car the fastest on the track.
Motorsport happens on many levels, though, from televised international championships to grassroots series for people who like to build things in their backyard. (Lest we forget, Formula 1 in the 1960s was dominated by the so-called Garagistes—small teams that put together cars in lockup garages and railways arches across the UK.) It's this Garagiste spirit that the autonomous track day is meant to inspire—although any big manufacturers who wanted to play would be more than welcome, Schachter told us. "The idea is to push the limits of engineering. Track days are the first step into racing, and I thought rather than create a hardware platform for people to use, why not create an event?"So far, there are two fully autonomous cars and an autonomous kart registered for the event, as well as some sensing companies and connected-car companies. If teams want to just test out particular sensors or components, Schachter says that's cool, too; he'll arrange for some vehicles that can be used as test beds, courtesy of friends in the amateur racing community (Schachter campaigns a Spec Miata).
Schachter seems realistic about the prospects for the event. Anyone who has spent time in a club racing paddock knows that taking a car to the track can expose a lot of problems. "I don't know that anyone will complete an autonomous lap at this first event," he said. Trying and failing is part of engineering, and the controlled environment of a racetrack is a great place to do that.
If you're working on a self-driving project that might be interesting to try out at Thunderhill, there's still plenty of time to get in on the action. It's an exciting event for the autonomous car world, and we hope that this is just the first of many such track days. And of course, we'll report back at the end of May to let everyone know how it went.