Roborace will be the world's first driverless racing series when it debuts either later this year or early next year, but the organizers have finally unveiled what its custom-made electric cars will look like — and boy do they look wild. The four-wheeled autonomous vehicles appear to be covered in sensors and look wickedly aerodynamic, with bodywork that covers up all the internals and massive openings around each axle.
That the car looks crazy isn't necessarily a surprise — after all, we learned in February (and the series confirmed today) that Roborace hired Daniel Simon, the man who designed the light cycles in Tron: Legacy, to design these cars. What is surprising is just how crazy they look. Regardless of whether you're talking about a futuristic racing series or regular road cars, there's typically a huge disconnect between concept cars and what actually makes it to the asphalt.
That's not the case here. In an official release, Simon says his goal was "to create a vehicle that takes full advantage of the unusual opportunities of having no driver without ever compromising on beauty," and that he worked with racing engineers and aerodynamicists to strike that balance. "Beauty was very high on our agenda," he says, and it shows.
That said, another thing is obvious with this car: there is plenty of room for branding. On the technical side of things, it's easy to understand why the series could draw big name automotive manufacturers that are working on autonomous technology. That's part of what already drew a number of them to Formula E. While no sponsors or teams have been announced for Roborace, the low, flat design of the cars offer much more real estate for those companies — or other brands traditionally associated with racing, like Virgin or Red Bull — to show off their branding and really sell the idea that they're working on crazy, futuristic ideas. Besides, without drivers, what else are the fans to root for?
Roborace didn't elaborate on any of the specs of the car, though Simon says it will "generate substantial downforce." He mentions in the statement that he's working with the series to develop active aerodynamic body parts, which sounds a bit like the active spoilers found on supercars like the McLaren P1, or the 675LT.
One thing we do know, according to what Roborace CEO Denis Sverdlov told Wired UK last fall, is that the cars could go as fast as 300 kilometers per hour (or 186 miles per hour) — good enough to make them the fastest autonomous cars in the world.
Otherwise, we still don't know much at all about how Roborace will operate as a series. The founders say that the first Roborace "shows" are still on schedule to take place during the 2016/17 Formula E season, though exactly when is still unknown. Sverdlov has mentioned plans to hold hour-long races just like Formula E, so calling them "shows" is a curious choice. The release goes on to say that Roborace will feature "disruptive and innovative new formats showcasing safety and extreme driving capabilities."
We're still not sure when Roborace will debut, or what the races will be like
So now we know what the cars look like, but we've been presented with even more questions. Does this mean that we'll see something different from the 10-team, 20-car races that were teased when the series was originally announced in November? Or will Roborace host a suite of events, with some looking more like traditional races and others being pure displays of what the teams' algorithms are capable of? Will Formula E pit its drivers against the autonomous cars in a high speed showdown of man versus machine?
One thing is for sure: whatever Roborace winds up becoming will be shaped by the logistical framework already put in place by Formula E. Roborace will be piggybacking on Formula E's infrastructure, performing on the same race days at the same locations. Considering that Formula E teams only have something on the order of half a day to practice, qualify, and race on each street circuit, there won't be a ton of time to squeeze in Roborace. But whatever these cars do, at least now we know they'll be doing it in style.
Update March 30th, 4:33PM ET: Roborace also just uploaded what is ostensibly the first commercial for the series to its YouTube page. In it, we get a few more glimpses of Simon's creation, though it's still likely that this — like the photos — are renders. It's anyone's guess when we'll see the real thing for the first time. You can watch the video below: