OK, it may be a bit premature to say that AI has the capability to compete on the athletic field with humans and call itself an athlete. If it’s full potential is reached humans have no chance but those days are not close yet, except in one sport. Researchers in Europe are working with AI to create a driverless car capable of competing in the top races of the sport and they are making major progress. Could the next great athlete and driver be a computer?

We’ll get this out of the way first, race car drivers are athletes. It is one of the great debates in sports whether they are an athlete or not, so we believe that they are. Strap yourself into one of those cars for hours at a time in excessive heat and you will believe, if you don’t already. Here in the US many people have their favorite NASCAR driver and the automotive racing scene in Europe is much the same with Formula 1. They believe that their drivers are athletes so, that’s good enough for us.


Universities in Europe have been competing in the Roborace motorsport competition with an electric startup. In this competition driverless vehicles race against each other to determine supremacy on the asphalt and Euro-bragging rights. All cars are electric and completely self driving, no human control involved and they compete in a Formula 1-like event. You could say AI can already consider itself an athlete.

These cars use all kinds of technology to compete. Cameras, radar, ultrasound sensors and lidar sensors are used to guide the car and feed information to a computer processor that is capable of 24 trillion operations a second. The cars are identical but are separated by the software developed and installed on the car by the competitors. The University of Munich’s entry can exceed 200 mph as reported by the BBC.


The vehicle used called DevBot has won the praise of the British automotive show Top Gear. It has already set its place in the record books by establishing a record at the Goodwood Hill Climb in England by navigating a narrow and winding 1.16 mile track around bales of hay, bends and flint walls in 66.96 seconds. The time was only 12 seconds less than the top human finisher and the lead developer of the project believes that 6 of those seconds can be easily overcome. The other six may not be so easy.

Hard To Test DevBot

Will a future version of the DevBot one day compete alongside the top human drivers in the Formula 1 series? It will be awhile before that day is even possible. The largest hurdle is that to fully test DevBot in a racing environment requires actual road testing and no one (developers, government officials and regular citizens alike) is comfortable with that yet for many different reasons. 

Is It Practical?

At the same time there is a question over what technology needs to go into the vehicle. Some, like Elon Musk, believe that cameras alone can get the job done. Others believe that far more is needed, more in line with what is installed with DevBot but this technology has its limitations. Lidar and cameras can have issues with weather though radar could help to overcome this as it works fine even in bad weather. 

This all sounds great but could one day be the vehicle that you drive? One day maybe but not today. Adding the lidar technology that DevBot has would cost a whopping €15,000-€20,000 ($16,600-$22,160) alone. That is almost as much as some people will pay for a vehicle.

Could An Autonomous Vehicle Be Cost Effective Right Now?

For a personal vehicle that is extremely expensive but it may be practical even today for delivery vehicles or taxi services. By removing a human from the equation (and the salary the human makes) and being able to use the vehicle 24 hours a day it could prove to be cost effective. We are already seeing AI make package deliveries so this is not out of the realm of possibility. The technology will also improve and the cost will inevitably be lowered making it practical for regular people. It is just a question of when that will happen.

Seen In Europe First

Of course you will not likely see a completely autonomous driverless vehicle on the roads in the next few years and it will likely be seen in Europe first so do not hold your breath. It is also unlikely that AI will be competing in any athletic competition but it is reasonable to think that within the next decade it will be pitted against the top Formula 1 drivers to see how it performs. You can bet that should DevBot (or something similar) be paired against a Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc or Kimi Räikkönen the world will be watching. An autonomous vehicle has set a world record has been set at a track in Texas in 2017 with a top speed of 160 mph but has yet to attempt the Nurburgring or other famous tracks. The world will want to know if AI is enough of an athlete to beat a human. 

It is cool to dream and this will be a reality in our lifetime. The only question is will people have their favorite autonomous driver the same way they have their favorite NASCAR driver? Will DevBot have the same following that Jimmie Johnson or Denny Hamlin or Kyle Busch or will it be the most hated driver on the track? We will see.

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