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Future of Technology in Racing: A Formula 1 Driver’s Perspective

By Nitin Dahad

LAS VEGAS — As my colleagues have written from CES 2020, automotive technology has somewhat dominated the conference here in Las Vegas. While there’s no doubt that advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) have come a long way and there are still roadmaps to go even further to improve driving experiences and safety, the question in my mind is: How far do we go with fully autonomous vehicles?

Even in the age of digital native youngsters, the camp is divided. On the one hand, there are 20-something-year-olds who stick to their belief that they will never need to drive cars, as everything will be autonomous, and in the age of Uber and Lyft, why would they ever need to drive a car? And then there are still driving enthusiasts.

We managed to catch up at CES with someone from the latter camp, 20-year-old Formula 1 driver for McLaren, Lando Norris, a strong driving enthusiast right from his early school years. Clearly, technology is an important part of the engineering of modern racing cars, almost to the same levels of advanced electronics and communications systems as in modern commercial aircraft.

Lando Norris explained how technology, and particularly live real-time data on all aspects of his drive, is a vital part of modern racing. As a top-tier racing driver, everything evolves around the technology.

He told EE Times, “One of the biggest things that helps me to drive is to be able to compare data. So we have live data while driving on track, which is relaying back to the engineers and the whole team, which they can then relay back to me, telling me where I need to go better and when I’m not doing good enough.” As a result, this helps him to improve constantly.

And in a race environment, one of the most useful parts of his technology arsenal is the radio — where he can talk constantly to the team to change things on the fly as he drives.

We asked his thoughts on what might be next for motor sports and technology. He said, “It’s going to advance a lot.” He jokingly added, “I don’t want it to advance too much that it puts me out of a job.

“Things will advance, but you don’t want to be changing what Formula 1 is. It still has the characteristic of someone, a human being, driving around a racing car as fast as they can. You don’t want anything to be too automated. Everything will improve, efficiencies will improve, data will improve, but I still want to be able to drive a racing car, in control of brake, throttle, steering, sliding the car around and having fun. In every aspect, it’s going to get better and move forward, but Formula 1 and my passion is driving a car as fast as I can.”

To me, that says a lot. There are some people that like driving, like Lando Norris. And there are others who can’t wait for fully autonomous vehicles, whenever that might arrive.

But it also leads to the question about what we automate and how far we can go, as well as the limitations of technology. In motor racing, you can have all the driver assistance you want. But the human can still control the destiny and the difference between winning and losing.

Last year, I had visited Oulu in Finland, and part of my program involved looking in on a global drone-racing competition. It had all the razzamatazz of Formula 1, with drones whizzing around the stadium at breakneck speeds and crashing into each other and into the side netting. But they were still being controlled by human “drivers” from the sidelines.

Maybe they could have gone fully autonomous with sensors to ensure that they don’t crash into other drones or the sides. But the problem at those speeds is likely that the response times in the electronics and sensors are not fast enough.

And in the world of motor racing, while Lando Norrris clearly has a passion for driving really fast, it may still be some time before the huge amounts of processing and the sensor-actuator response times are fast enough to cope with reacting at speeds of over 200 mph.

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