It wasn’t long after the first automobiles appeared at the dawn of the 20th century that someone had the bright idea of getting more than one of them and having a race. This moment of inspiration soon gave birth to grand prix racing, in 1906, and the Formula One world championship began in 1950.
But the next revolution in motoring could and probably will profoundly alter how future generations perceive motor racing. Because soon we won’t be driving ourselves to new destinations – computers will do it for us.
Will a world where people are forgetting the feel of the steering wheel in their hands and the pedals at their feet render motor racing irrelevant?
After all, if a computer can learn to obey traffic signs, navigate complex junctions and find a parking space, surely one can just as easily learn to take a racing car to the limit of its capabilities? Will we still be able to marvel at humans doing something computers can do much better?
This is not an entirely new area of discussion for Formula One. In the early nineties the sudden growth of electronic driver aids prompted fierce debate over how much computer assistance was too much.
Anti-locking braking systems, fully automated gearboxes and (eventually) traction control were among the devices pruned from the cars. The sport’s governing body rightly drew the conclusion that while the cars provide the spectacle, the human element of competition is vital.
But back in our own cars the computers have been taking over for decades. Road cars have the luxuries mentioned above and many more: radar-guided collision avoidance systems, automated parking, and other new applications which are bring developed and announced all the time.
Control over our cars is gradually being taken out of our hands. And a sudden step forward is just around the corner as the first self-driving cars are beginning to appear.
Google Chauffeur is a driverless car system currently in development by the technology giant which could be road-legal in the USA in as little as two years. And at last year’s DTM season finale Audi showed off a driverless car it also hopes to put on sale in 2017:
While manufacturers press on with solving the technological challenges, the legislative obstacles to driverless cars are also being removed. The British government is already planning a review of road rules to allow for driverless cars on its roads over the next two years.
The line connecting these development and the popularity of motor racing may seem tenuous. But you only have to look at the growing popularity of professional gaming to understand the close link between how commonplace an activity is and how much interest it gets from the general public.
And if car manufacturers are chasing a new market for self-driving vehicles, will they still be interested in using motor racing to promote their products? The manufacturer backing championships like Formula One crave could be threatened.
Only a small number of us might have seen a self-driving car on the road already. But it seems inevitably that most of us will, one day in the not-too-distant future. Of course it will seem unusual at first. But from that point in time, how many years will pass until the sight of someone driving their own car becomes unusual?
And when that happens, what will the first generation of people who consider it unusual not to let a car drive itself think of the idea of people racing them? Will they look on in awe at the drivers’ abilities as we do now – or will it seem as relevant as chariot racing does today?
Share your thoughts on how the driver-free future of motoring could affect motor racing in the comments.
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