Formula One's safety cars could go autonomous in the future, exec says

Formula One safety car

All eyes may be on the race cars and their drivers, but an important part of the Formula One show is the safety car that herds the racers during opening formation laps and caution periods triggered by accidents or other dangerous conditions.

Today, the safety car is piloted by a human driver, but that job could go to robots in the future, Motorsport.com reports. F1 officials want to keep human drivers in the race cars, but there have been discussions of an autonomous safety car, Marcin Budkowski, head of F1’s technical department, said in an interview.

“It would promote a technology about which there is a bit of skepticism and, instead, it could be shown that it works,” Budowski said. Judging by his comments, F1 seems more interested in an autonomous safety car as a way to showcase new technology, rather than any practical reason. Budkowski said that “using the motor sport platform to promote to the public new technologies, like an unmanned safety car … can be fantastic in exploring the possibility of new solutions.”

F1 believes associating itself with new technologies is an important way to stay relevant to the public, but it will only go so far. Roborace has demonstrated autonomous race cars, but F1 is in no hurry to replace its human race drivers, Budkowski said.

“I see it [Roborace] as a very interesting thing, which pushes things in one direction,” he said. “But can this idea of having no F1 driver captivate millions around the world? Frankly, I have doubts.”

Roborace is trying to recruit teams for an autonomous racing series that would run as a support series for Formula E electric-car races. The company has demonstrated prototype autonomous race cars at a handful of Formula E events, but hasn’t run any actual races yet. While Roborace does boast a sleek-looking car, it remains to be seen whether driverless racing will really be as exciting as the traditional version.

Even F1’s hypothetical autonomous safety car might be a stretch. It would be a great way for an automaker to promote its self-driving cars, but the actual utility of a robotic safety car is questionable. Using the safety car to show off new technology is one thing, but the car still has to perform a vital function during races. If that clever new technology fails at a critical moment, will it be worth it?