Have you heard of Anki? Possibly. Anki makes a really cool toy called Anki Overdrive, which costs $149.99, has modular track pieces, and AI-powered cars that drive themselves or assist a smartphone-wielding human driver to keep a miniature care the track while they focus on the race.
But have you heard of Hot Wheels? Everyone has heard of Hot Wheels, which is probably what Hot Wheels is banking on with its new Hot Wheels AI kit. Technologically it's not quite as impressive as Anki, and its modular track pieces are more flimsy and therefore less interesting to build with (no jumps!). But it’s made by Hot Wheels, it has cars, and it's a lot of fun.
The $99 starter set comes with two cars, two controllers (no smartphone required), and 20 track pieces. The cars are 1/32nd scale, so a lot bigger than a regular Hot Wheels car but not as large as a traditional remote-control car. The cars keep track of their positioning through sensors that reads the grey gradient on the track. It's a pretty simple algorithm: turn right if the track is too dark, turn left if the track is too light.
You can put the cars in a robot mode where they'll just drive themselves around the track forever, or you can opt to steer a car. There are different levels of "difficulty" which determine how fast you can go and how much the car will steer automatically. In the advanced mode you can keep the throttle pulled half way and you'll never have any problems, but go full speed and it's not hard to zoom off the track. Your AI opponents, even at the highest difficulty level, never hit top speed so it's easy to dominate.
Thankfully, you can also race against a human, and if I was 10 years old again I would be challenging all comers because it's actually a blast to drive the cars. There's enough control that you feel like you're driving, and enough assistance that the disorientation caused by steering a car from a fixed external vantage point doesn't ruin everything. A free roam remote-control mode is also available, but it's not nearly as exhilarating as racing on the track against other cars.
The controllers communicate locally to track who is in what position (and yell updates through a built-in speaker), along with what your lap times are. You can also "shoot" oil spills at opposing cars which is a sort of ambiguous and unsatisfying method of making whoever is in first place spin out. Up to four humans can control cars at once, but you can have an unlimited number of robot cars.
I only had about 45 minutes to play with Hot Wheels AI, but the whole time my childhood self was glaring at me, exceedingly jealous. That little guy, dumb enough to be born in the mid-'80s, poured hundreds of hard-earned paper route dollars into remote-control cars, slot cars, and model trains, and for $99 Hot Wheels AI is so much more fun than any of those diversions.
As cool as Anki though? Probably not. Hot Wheels is a toy company and actually outsourced the "smarts" of these cars. Anki is an AI company, and has built a lot more intelligence into its products. There's actually a hidden USB port on the Hot Wheels AI cars, hidden under the plastic chassis, so perhaps more interesting firmware or add-ons are forthcoming. For now, Anki is still the AI leader in the rapidly crowding space of self-driving toy cars.
Hot Wheels AI ships in October.