Microchip maker Nvidia is a big presence here at CES with keynotes, new chipsets to power autonomous vehicle technologies, and a sleek robo-racer gracing the centre of their stand. Although not a debut – the car, in rendering and display model form, has been around for 18 months now – it was certainly an eye-opener to see it in person.
Soon to be a support series to the FIA Formula E Championship, the robotic cars use various types of high-speed computing, in the same type of car, to help accurately drive their respective racers around the track. Each team’s hardware is the same, but their own software replaces the drivers.
Nvidia’s entry employs the DRIVE PX2, a lunchbox-sized supercomputer that can process up to 24 trillion operations per second, equivalent to the power of 150 MacBook Pros. The DRIVE PX2 can receive input from a vast array of sensors – radar, lidar, cameras, mapping systems, GPS, and others. It’s a good thing too, as ‘the Robocar’ employs some six cameras, five lidars, two radars and quite a number of other sensing and navigation systems.
Nvidia’s car employs electric power with four 300kW motors and a 540kW/h battery pack. Top speed is expected to be over 300kph (186mph), substantially faster than the human-driven Formula E cars.
The Robocar measures 4800 mm long, 2000mm wide and a scant 500 mm tall. It weighs 1000 kg – pretty hefty for a racing car with no cockpit – but the battery pack, as in all EVs, is a significant portion of that weight.
The car has been designed in collaboration with Tron: Legacy visual artist Daniel Simon, who when asked about the challenges of designing a driverless race car, said, “It’s not easy to create something with character or attitude where the driver’s helmet is missing.”
Helmet or no helmet, this could be the start of an entirely new motorsport. Will it take the place of Formula 1 or NASCAR? It seems unlikely – human drama, personal competition and grudge matches are all intricate parts of those motorsports.
Still, there is a real possibility of an exciting, but different sort of motorsport alongside those – one which might inform the design of autonomous vehicles that do carry actual humans.