Google’s F1 Challenge

Google’s F1 Challenge

Horse racing has continued to be a major sport in spite of the fact that most of us gave up using horses as a form of transport around a century ago. Visitors to the Prix de l’Arc, Royal Ascot, Kentucky Derby, Melbourne Cup or Dubai World Cup enjoy the spectacle of watching men and women apply their skill, courage and athleticism to the task of guiding these finest of animals in competition along the flats or over fences.

Odd as it may seem, I think this is a clue to the future of Formula One. In not too many years we will look upon manually driven cars powered by internal combustion engines in a similar way to how we view horses. Owning one may well become an expensive hobby for a well-off few, for they will no be longer the primary means of transport.

Formula One is a sport which, among other things, requires that the cars are manually driven. Therefore the accelerated drive towards fully autonomous vehicles within the R&D labs of Silicon Valley and automotive companies around the world poses a significant challenge, together with the shift away from using gasoline engines.

Just as 15 years ago, when we rather relied upon tobacco sponsorship for a big chunk of revenue, the sport finds itself exposed to the investment we receive from the automotive industry and associated energy sector as a result of Formula One being ‘road relevant’. Automotive manufacturers and oil companies account for the lion’s share of sponsorship funding and investment in the sport today; think Ferrari/Shell, Mercedes/Petronas, Renault/Total and McLaren-Honda/Exxon Mobil.

The first time we saw the Google car most people felt it was nothing but a cute show case for Google’s mapping capabilities. Now, 1.5 million self-driving miles later, and with a fleet including Toyota, Audi and Lexus cars, Google has come a long way. Driverless operation is permitted in an increasing number of States and jurisdictions. Tesla’s Elon Musk says we’ll have fully autonomous cars on our roads within two years. In the corridors of power at Ford, FIAT Chrysler, GM and Toyota the R&D dollars being spent on autonomous technologies is being reflected among suppliers such as Bosch, which has over 2000 engineers dedicated to driver-assistance and fully autonomous technologies.

The benefits to society will be profound and unstoppable. Cars that will be fully connected, inherently safe, energy efficient and emission free. Safe because autonomous cars won’t crash due to human factors including drink/drug-driving, using social media, making phone calls, texting, driving too fast, driving too close to the car in front, falling asleep and road rage. We are awful at this, and the 3500 people killed every day on the roads of the world bear tragic witness to it. The costs to human life, the emergency services, healthcare bills, lost working hours and so on, are enormous.

Autonomous vehicles won’t make these basic yet common human mistakes, yet it is interesting how often people say that they wouldn’t trust a self-driving car. Frankly I’d trust a self driving car more than a human being. In Formula One we witness driver error all the time; we spend millions of dollars developing amazing machines which integrate technologies from automotive, aerospace and ICT only to have human error cause accidents. When Fernando Alonso crashed spectacularly at the Australian Grand Prix this year the double World Champion, one of the top three drivers in the world, made an error of judgement in respect of the closing speed to the car in front. The result? A catastrophic accident which, had it happened 25 years ago, would have cost Alonso his life. Fortunately we now design F1 cars to help a human survive the effects of a 300kph error of judgement.

Safety aside, the energy efficiency and zero emissions in our autonomous future are all interlinked. Fully-electric vehicles create battery ‘range anxiety’, not because the batteries are rubbish but because we accelerate too quickly, drive too fast and use the the brakes too late. Autonomous systems will optimise your range; the evidence points to journey times being shortened, not lengthened, in a world free from the inadequacies of the human driver.

Lots of people tell me on social media that they will never drive an electric or autonomous vehicle because they enjoy the experience of driving a manually operated vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine.

In Formula One we saw tobacco sponsorship outlawed due to world-wide, government-backed legislation driven by a desire to improve public health and reduce the costs on society. For the same reason we will see the internal combustion engine legislated out of existence and the use of autonomous vehicles made mandatory in many environments.

Last week news emerged that Norway is heading towards an outright ban on petrol and diesel powered cars by 2025; nine years hence. Across Europe other governments are signing up to protocols targeting 2050 as a more realistic deadline, and for the good people of Shanghai, Jakarta, Mumbai or Sao Paolo, a safe, smog fee, congestion-lite future will drive change.

Combined with autonomous driving systems, this will pose significant challenges to the many automotive brands for which the driving experience is currently a key selling point. Legislation banning the use of manually driven, internal combustion powered vehicles in metropolitan areas and freeways will render the manual option permissible only in prescribed parts of the countryside. It is not impossible to see a future where, in many jurisdictions, the only place you can manually drive a high performance vehicle will be on a race track.

Which brings me back to Formula One and horse racing.

By 2050 the big appeal of Formula One may well be the novelty of watching cars powered by hybrid petrol-electric engines racing wheel-to-wheel at 350kph with all the risk inherent in having humans behind the wheel. Large audiences will absorb this spectacle, guaranteeing continued revenues from the sale of media and sponsorship rights, boosted further by the convergence of virtual reality and live sport from which Formula One is ideally placed to benefit. However, it will have little ‘road-relevance’ to our day-to-day transport, which means a paradigm shift in current thinking among the sport’s regulators.

Henry Ford is attributed with the quote; ‘If I’d asked people what they want, they’d have said a faster horse’. Perhaps we should replace ‘horse’ with ‘car’ and start to deal with the real changes ahead.