Since the automobile's earliest days, racing has been the catalyst for innovation in the industry. That's the goal of the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL)—to drive technological innovation through exciting racing action while having some fun in the process.  Eight teams from around the world will gather at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi on April 27 for the inaugural race of the series. Aside from the glory and the advancement of technology, teams will compete for a $2.25-million cash prize. And we're all invited along for the ride.

A2RL is the brainchild of the ASPIRE group, the program management arm of the Advanced Technology Research Council. The group's mission is to seek solutions to difficult problems by mobilizing the world's brightest minds, bringing them together, and fostering development through friendly competition. In this instance, the problem is vehicle safety. How do we make passenger cars safer for occupants during collisions? The best answer is the obvious one: Avoid the collision.

Autonomous race car built by Dallara with Honda engine for Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

"In organizing a motorsport event, the grand challenge that we're trying to address is actually around road safety," said ASPIRE Executive Director Tom McCarthy. "We've seen huge advances in the technology of the cars that everyone drives but what we've not seen is a substantial decrease in road accidents and fatalities, they stay stubbornly high. We believe the big reason for that is the big gap between what the car can do and what the average driver can do. Cars are safer when you crash, minimizing the consequences with crumple zones and extensive airbags, but what we’re going to focus on is avoiding the crash in the first place. Autonomous robotics and AI can bridge that gap, between car and driver, to bring about safer outcomes on the roads."

That's where A2RL comes in. Eight race cars based on those used in Japan's Super Formula series will compete against the clock and each other in limited wheel-to-wheel action. Built by Dallara, every car has a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder race engine based on a Honda mill, connected to a six-speed gearbox. In place of the driver is a large stack of equipment, including cameras, sensors, GPS, actuators, and a drive-by-wire system. Sandwiched in the middle is a computer controlling it all. And once the car is on the track, it’s up to this "AI stack" to bring home a win.

"The autonomous stack perceives the environment, sends the signals into the computer, and then the real challenge for the teams is to program it so it acts on all those signals and instructs the actuators to control the car," said McCarthy. "The challenge for the coders is to fuse all that available data and harness it to run the car autonomously. Once the car fires up, it's on its own—nobody can interfere with it. The only outside control, either by the team or race control, is the stop instruction on safety grounds. The car must complete tasks on the track, like overtaking another car, by itself."

Autonomous race car built by Dallara with Honda engine for Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

While the cars are driverless, they are obviously supported by the teams McCarthy mentioned. It's a truly global effort, with teams comprised of members from a wide range of technical and motorsports backgrounds. Germany, Italy, Singapore, Switzerland, China, Hungary, the United States, and the UAE are represented. And while the teams are in it for the competition, there’s also a very handsome prize for first place: A $2.25-million payout.

This isn't just a flash in the pan. A2RL is already committed to four years at Yas Marina in Abu Dhabi, and as the process gets dialed in, A2RL hopes to expand to other tracks in Europe and Asia. From a spectator point-of-view, a VR camera can give race fans an extra-special taste of the action through a VR experience not often seen in motorsports. That could also lead to a gaming experience further down the road, complementing the real-life action in a virtual racing environment.

For the immediate future, however, the racing action is very real.

"We believe the cars of the future will continue to be driven by humans, and that driverless cars or taxis will be the minority, likely in urban areas going very slowly, at least in the next decade or two," said McCarthy "We want to focus on active driving. So, in the real world, we don’t want to take the driver out of the car. We want to keep the driver safer. To realize the potential is to push ahead in technological advances and to let drivers see this [autonomous] technology in action to accept it."

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