Like most kids growing up in the 1960s, my first experience with an electric race car was at a slot car track as a teenager. They were fast…really fast if you used a hopped-up rewind motor capable of smoking competitors off the track.
This was followed decades later with the full-scale, real-life electric cars I witnessed competing in the APS Solar & Electric 500 at Phoenix International Raceway in 1991. They were electric conversions of one type or another, using commercially- available batteries or experimental ones with exotic chemistries, once again reinforcing that racing is where automotive technology is proved on the track, then evolved and adapted for cars on the road.
Segue to 2017, where the process continues in full force. Not only are electrics competing in FIA Formula E racing, but automakers are now signing on in a big way. Audi, Jaguar Land Rover, and Mahindra are competing with factory teams during the 2017 Formula E season and others are sponsoring race teams. It’s no mystery why auto companies are involved in Formula E since electrification is playing an increasingly important role in the automobile’s future.
Now there’s a new twist that combines electric racing with the high-profile competition in developing autonomous cars: the Roborace. Ten teams will use identical autonomous electric race cars with an eye toward earning the checkered flag exclusively through the prowess of artificial intelligence (AI) and their programming skills. No driver required.
The application of increasingly sophisticated AI in our cars is evident in the advanced driver-assist systems being integrated in new models, creating ‘smart’ cars that can respond to emergency situations faster than most drivers. In fact, the processing speed of machines versus humans was recently on the mind of Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk, when he recently shared that the processing speed of machines is so superior to humans that “over time I think we will probably see a closer merger of biological intelligence and digital intelligence.”
What does that mean? Apparently, being human in a future world of AI is not enough because we are so slow. “It’s mostly about the bandwidth, the speed of the connection between your brain and the digital version of yourself, particularly output,” says Musk. His reasoning is that “some high bandwidth interface to the brain will be something that helps achieve a symbiosis between human and machine intelligence and maybe solves the control problem and the usefulness problem.” Yikes. I’m not the first to think ‘cyborg’ after hearing this. I’ll pass…although I will enjoy the benefits of connectivity and driver assistance systems in the meantime.
In a different and certainly more comforting look ahead, we know that plug-in vehicles are a hot item. Would you be surprised to know there are now 39 plug-in models - battery electrics and plug-in hybrids - being sold now or coming during the 2017 calendar year? That's a huge statement for electric drive and that number will certainly grow in the years ahead.
While Tesla models presently claim the greatest battery electric range at an entry point of $84,700, the new $37,495 Chevy Bolt EV stands out as the first battery electric car affordable to the masses with a driving range over 200 miles. Tesla has promised its coming Model 3 will also have a driving range greater than 200 miles at a base price of $35,000.
Without a doubt, the integration of semi-autonomous features and ‘green’ technologies will continue to grow. Welcome to your driving future!