This past year the sport continued to loose sponsors and viewers, despite the crowds at the Driver’s Crown finale in November. It would be exciting if NASCAR could reinvent itself and recognize the coming rise of autonomous vehicles. Races can serve a vital role in new technology- they showcase advancement, bring teams of like minded engineers together, and educate/entertain the public simultaneously.
In fact, the earliest days of the autonomous car began with a race sponsored by the Department of Defense (DARPA Grand Challenge). For a few years teams came together to race in the Mojave Desert, and then the competition moved on to more urban challenges. Many pioneers of the autonomous vehicle, like Chris Urmson, began their careers with the DARPA challenge.
Fast forward now to NASCAR races, where attendance and viewership is said to be slacking off. One explanation is that NASCAR is synonymous with sport for Baby Boomers. Boomers are a car-centric generation, and nearly 1 in 10 Boomers have worked in a job associated, at some level, with automotives. But currently, their children and grandchildren drive less and are less sentimental about it. Younger people are not motorheads- it has moved on to an internet centric generation.
But, there are changes for NASCAR that might help bridge this gap. And, it is beginning with with challenges for electric Formula One type cars, aptly called Formula-E! But, NASCAR is the better suited race to showcase future vehicles, because “it’s not necessarily the best car that wins. It’s the car that has done best with speed, maneuvering, fuel mileage, pit stops, and restarts after cautions.”
Imagine a future race where the vehicle that “wins” is still the first one that can cross the finish line, but does so by avoiding hazards in the road, say mattresses and sandbags. The racing autos might need to differentiate between “real” versus fake red/yellow/green signals. And, a winning car might be equipped with a backup plan, when its LIDAR bearings are purposively scrambled by the race committee. The “most winning” vehicle will cross the finish line by neither sideswiping its neighbors, nor causing rear-end collisions. Along the way, it might be come in for a (human enabled) software pitstop or two. It is reminiscent of the DARPA challenge.
For an autonomous NASCAR race, the primary change may be recognition that auto accidents, aka “crashes” are no longer a prime-time draw. Fiery crashes against the wall, spin-outs that cause chain reactions, and crumpled metal should be reevaluated for their entertainment value- in a new era charting sports-induced concussions and injuries. The autonomous car is a “red flag” for this traditional type of racing. These new vehicles are programmed to avert accidents, steer away from hazards, and cooperate with other vehicles on the roadway.
A second difference for a future NASCAR/ autonomous race is the environmental impact. Currently, NASCAR teams may use between nine and 14 sets of tires per race, which amounts to between 36 and 56 recapped tires. A single NASCAR vehicle is said to get about 5 miles per gallon. The smell of petro permeates the stands and engines roar. The autonomous car, once again, is a “red flag” to NASCAR conventions. These future vehicles will be designed to control emissions and be silent in busy, congested and densely populated cities.
This is not to say that NASCAR and the autonomous car cannot find common ground. Even prior to DARPA, there were solar and electric powered car races, and speed was the winning criteria, as in NASCAR. The question today is how can an autonomous car bring excitement to the track, particularly if it is programmed to obey the speed limit, avoid collisions, and travel in harmony with nearby vehicles? That is to be worked out, off the course. The good news is that the result will educate/entertain people about the autonomous car, particularly if it begins, like its NASCAR roots, with vehicle models that are familiar names and nearly showroom ready.