Abu Dhabi sets date for driverless race on Formula 1 track as autonomous ambitions take shape

Visitors to the Gitex technology conference in Dubai can get a sneak peek of the racing car

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Abu Dhabi has set a date for driverless racing on its Formula One track, aimed at bringing a new spectator sport to the capital while advancing autonomous and robotics systems. 

The first race for the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League is scheduled for April 28, 2024, with 10 competitors from universities and research teams around the world vying for a prize pool up to $2.25 million. 

Also known as self-driving racing, the sport involves competition among vehicles that are controlled by a computer.

“By bringing together scientists, developers, and coding gurus from around the world within an extreme sports arena, we are actively stress-testing capabilities on the racetracks, for safety on our roads,” Faisal Al Bannai, secretary general of the Advanced Technology Research Council, which is overseeing the league, according to a statement released today. 

The news comes within a day of the Abu Dhabi government announcing a new research and policy development platform to spur the UAE’s autonomous vehicle industry. 

The business cluster, headquartered in Masdar City,  will provide global players with access to testing facilities. 

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office, the local business development arm of the capital’s government, expects the new campus to create up to 50,000 jobs and contribute at least $24.5 billion to the UAE economy.

China’s WeRide, which is already operating trials for driverless cars on Abu Dhabi roads, will establish its Middle East headquarters at the Masdar City location. Marakeb Technologies, a UAE-based maker of maritime unmanned systems will develop marine technologies, and Joby Aviation, California-based company developing electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft  will “participate” in the project.

Abu Dhabi’s dedicated AI research university Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), its applied research campus Technology Innovation Institute, research university Khalifa University and its startup ecosystem Hub71 are also involved. 

“The announcements of involvement from leading companies developing autonomous systems technologies lend weight to the plans announced for Abu Dhabi’s new Smart and Autonomous Vehicle Industries cluster, which envisions hardware and software R&D labs, small workshops, 3D-printing and simulation facilities,” Carrington Malin, a technology consultant based in Dubai, wrote on Linkedin. 

At the Formula One track on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island next spring, teams will develop autonomous systems for identical, new Dallara Super Formula SF23 cars, which have been built specifically for the racing league. Visitors to the Gitex technology conference in Dubai this week can catch a glimpse of the racing car at the Technology Innovation Institute stand.

The car is the fastest open-wheel racing car in the world outside of Formula One, reaching maximum speeds of 185 miles per hour. The 10 teams will adapt their software algorithms on the vehicle in order to compete. Spectators are expected to use virtual reality and augmented reality technologies, allowing them to get in the driver’s seat and see firsthand head-to-head autonomous car racing, with live updates and real-time displays shown on screen.

While this type of motorsport is relatively new, autonomous racing is gaining traction around the world.

The annual Indy Autonomous Challenge, hosted at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the U.S. beginning in 2021, was the first such race between autonomous vehicles. Organizers of the IAC event say they were inspired by those who competed in the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) Grand Challenge, which put forward a $1 million prize in 2004. That competition of mostly university-affiliated teams gave rise to the modern automated vehicle industry.

Aspire, the organizers of Abu Dhabi’s new league, said racing leagues for autonomous off-road vehicles and drones are also underway.

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