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Robots, start your engines: Formula E plans race series for self-driving cars

Virgin Racing Formula E
Which is more important: the car, or the driver? Seeing fast cars is undoubtedly a big part of the appeal of racing, but what would happen if you removed the human element completely? Would racing still be as exciting without the drama of human drivers risking their lives in pursuit of victory?

Formula E wants to find out. The electric-car race series plans to develop a separate series for self-driving cars. Called “Roborace,” it will not replace the current Formula E format but rather act as a support series. Officials hope it will demonstrate that autonomous-driving technology can work in extreme conditions, and presumably also hope Roborace will create some good publicity, too.

Most race series today include smaller support series to augment the main event. This gives spectators more to do over the course of a day or weekend, when that main event isn’t going on. These series are usually smaller scale, and involve amateur or lower-level professional drivers. Launching Roborace this way puts less pressure on organizers to put on a good show with new and limited technology, and will help draw attention to the growing Formula E brand.

Formula E says the first Roborace event will take place during the 2016-2017 season. Each race will take place prior to a Formula E event, using the same temporary circuits set up on city streets. Ten teams will compete with two autonomous cars each in one-hour races. As with the first season of Formula E, all cars will be identical.

While Google’s self-driving pod car isn’t exactly sporty, autonomous vehicles have already proven that they can handle a more lively pace. Audi raced a self-driving TT up Pikes Peak, and subsequently built two autonomous RS 7 prototypes that have turned hot laps on several notable racetracks around the world.

But will that translate into something people actually want to watch? The novelty of a race series for autonomous cars will certainly help Roborace get started, but it’s hard to know exactly what it will look like when a pack of self-driving cars pile into the first turn of the inaugural robo-prix.

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