Does the Future of Motorsports Include Autonomous Driving?

March 15, 2022
Grant Harrell


Paul Mitchell, President & CEO of ESN (Energy Systems Network), is also the organizer of the world’s first autonomous, head-to-head vehicle racing challenge. This historical event in motorsports took place on January 7th at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Mitchell shared the details with Grant Harrell on this episode of Are We There Yet?

“We had a head-to-head, two cars at a time, passing each other at increasingly higher speeds, fully autonomous, and the winner was successfully passing at more than 165 miles an hour,” Mitchell said. “So, we’re there in the sense of head-to-head autonomous racing. But we’ve got a long way to go to achieve the goals and aspirations that we have for the future of automation in autonomous motorsport.”

Testing of these autonomous vehicles began with student-led teams in June of 2021. The teams trained a fleet of ten cars to go from 30 MPH to eventually more than 160 MPH. The current engine limits on these vehicles are 170 MPH, but that’s not too shabby for less than a year of testing. And Mitchell said with more work on the engines; those speeds will increase.

Harrell wondered if motorsports will soon see competitions between human-crewed vehicles versus autonomous.

“We’re a long way away from having an autonomous race car that can compete, head-to-head with the world’s best drivers, whether it’s for INDYCAR, or NASCAR, or Formula 1,” Mitchell said. “What’s more likely to happen in the near term is the technology on our vehicles can enhance the safety, and the speed, and the performance of human-driven race cars.”

And while racing these autonomous vehicles is a whole heck of a lot of fun, there are more tangible benefits for the industry. “The entire racing concept is a proving ground for cutting-edge, autonomous hardware & software technologies,” Mitchell said. “We are putting on these race cars, LIDAR, radar, optical sensors, advanced computers, drive-by-wire systems, GPS, and a whole bunch of software and the advance algorithms that the University teams are coding for these vehicles.”

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