AI race car vs. human: Who wins?

Published 3:52 AM EST, Wed December 20, 2017
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Story highlights

DevBot is world's first AI electric race car

Challenge took place at Hong Kong ePrix

Driverless car developed by Roborace

Editor’s Note: The new season of CNN’s Formula E show, “Supercharged” premieres on December 23 at 12:30 p.m. GMT (7:30 a.m. EST). For more show times visit CNN.com/motorsport

(CNN) —  

Artificial intelligence has defeated world chess champions, mastered the ancient (and fiendishly complex) Chinese board game Go and more recently beat a bunch of professional poker players hands down.

But can a autonomous car go faster than a human driver on a race track?

Earlier this month, CNN’s Supercharged presenter Nicki Shields got the chance to find out as she pitted her driving skills against the world’s first autonomous electric racing car in Hong Kong.

Shields was racing in, as well as against, the “DevBot,” a prototype AI race car developed by Roborace which has both human and autonomous modes.

The DevBot has been a regular fixture at Formula E events over the past 12 months, showing off its driverless technology at races in Marrakech, Buenos Aires, Paris, Berlin and New York. But it had never gone head-to-head with a human driver.

’Insanely tight’

Racing on the track that staged the opening two rounds of the 2017-18 Formula E championship, the task for both human and robot was complicated by the confines of the street circuit.

Roborace's 'Devbot'

  • Chassis: LMP3 Ginetta
  • Battery: 540 kW
  • Wheel motors: 300 kW (x4)
  • Ultrasonic sensors: 15
  • Computer vision cameras: 6
  • LIDAR: 5
  • Radar: 2
  • AI software: NVIDIA Drive PX2
  • Top speed: 300 kph (186 mph)

“It’s quite scary because it’s very narrow – there was no room to maneuver,” Shields explained.

READ: AI elecric racer makes street track debut

“Going into one of the chicanes is insanely tight, and of course if you get it wrong you are in the wall. You have to get it right every time.”

For Roborace, it wasn’t just the track but Hong Kong’s unique topography that posed problems.

“This was our first time of running our completely new AI Driver software in a built-up urban environment,” Roborace’s CTO Bryn Balcombe told CNN via email.

Roborace hope their work with AI cars can benefit general road users in the future
Matt Knight/CNN
Roborace hope their work with AI cars can benefit general road users in the future

“The urban canyons created by the tall skyscrapers cause disruptions to GPS which are difficult to replicate in a testing environment.”

READ: Daniel Abt stripped of maiden Formula E win

Before completing a flying lap Roborace engineers deploy DevBot at low speed in what they call “explorer mode” where track data is gathered using state-of-the-art sensing equipment including LIDAR, radar, ultrasonics and cameras.

Once the track has been scanned, the information is processed by an AI computer (a NVIDIA