The specs and story behind the Roborace autonomous car and its Nvidia Drive PX 2 brains

No cockpit: This machine will be programmed to drive itself.

Roborace’s insanely gorgeous racecar has a mission—to promote autonomous driving. It aspires to be so fascinating that people set aside any doubts they have about self-driving cars.

But autonomous cars need to build technological credibility, too, so on Tuesday morning we learned about the silicon driving this car’s autonomous logic: Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 is a compact and powerful computer that’s ready to process the torrent of data a vehicle needs to move safely in the world.

Even at this early stage—the body is still a work-in-progress—there’s a lot to say about this so-called Robocar. So let’s step through what we know and consider what the future may hold for Roborace’s vehicle.

Drive PX 2: A supercomputer for self-driving cars

nvidia drive px 2 board Nvidia

Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 platform offers scalable power for autonomous driving.

Nvidia is using its GPU heritage to move into new industries, including automotive. The Drive PX 2, which the company announced at CES in January, is a lunchbox-sized supercomputer with dual Tegra CPUs and dual Pascal GPUs. The Drive PX 2 can juggle input from cameras, radar, and other sensors, and help the car make sense of its environment in real time—you know, like humans can. Drive PX 2’s architecture is also scalable to match what the vehicle needs (and control costs). The DriveWorks development tool for programming the Drive PX 2 is still in beta, but it’s already being used by Roborace and a handful of other partners.

When Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang revealed the Roborace partnership at the company’s GPU Technology Conference Tuesday morning, he also brandished one of the Drive PX 2 modules that goes inside the car, which included two enticingly unannounced Pascal GPUs. Heaven forbid that Nvidia ever stop making graphics cards, but its snazziest technologies are going into innovations like Drive PX 2 before they ever hit a gaming rig.

Any talk of high-performance chips inevitably turns to thermals. Nvidia’s Dan Shapiro, speaking after the keynote, said Drive PX 2 is designed to be air-cooled and water-cooled. In the Roborace car, Shapiro added, Drive PX 2 also takes advantage of the cooling system for the car’s battery.

nvidia gtc keynote jen hsun huang drive px 2 Nvidia

At Nvidia GTC, CEO Jen-Hsun Huang held up a Drive PX 2 supercomputer for autonomous driving.

Roborace: A company and a competition

Roborace is the brainchild of Kinetik, an investment company founded by entrepreneur Denis Sverdlov. The company developed the car and is also developing the race series intended to prove the mettle of autonomous driving.

The competition, also called Roborace, will pit a small fleet of these cars against each other on the same courses used by the Formula E Championship, a three-years-young series for human-driven electric racecars (the Roborace car is also electric). Roborace hasn’t committed to any race dates yet.

“The goal,” said Sverdlov, “is to show that autonomous cars belong on public roads, so people will accept it.” Google’s autonomous cars are already on public roads, of course, but it’s no stretch to say that those toy-like vehicles are not as awe-inspiring as the Robocar.

Ten Roborace teams, which will be chosen through a qualification process, will be equipped with two identical cars that they can program using Nvidia’s Driveworks development tool. While piles of cash play a key role in high-end motorsports, Roborace teams won’t have to pay for the cars, leaving more resources for programming. “Roborace is a competition of intelligence, not budget,” said Sverdlov.

The car’s specs: What we know so far

The Robocar has popped up in automotive media now and then for some months, but the only known spec (reported by Wired UK) has been a claimed top speed of about 186 mph. But on Tuesday afternoon at Nvidia GTC, Kinetik’s Sverdlov divulged further details:

  • Gross weight: 2,200 pounds
  • Length: 15 feet, 9 inches
  • Width: 6 feet, 7 inches
  • Wheelbase: 9 feet, 2 inches

Yes, it’s a relatively big, heavy car, especially considering its dimensions don’t have to accommodate a living, breathing driver. “It’s going to be a challenge for the teams,” Sverdlov acknowledged, noting that most of the weight is in batteries.

It’s also very low-slung—just 18 inches high in front, and 20 inches in back. “We want to guide a lot of air through the car and also a lot of downforce over the top,” said Roborace’s chief design officer, Daniel Simon.

The car’s design: Still in flux

You might know Simon from his design of the light cycles in the movie Tron:Legacy, among other projects. For the Robocar, Simon says he wants to introduce “beauty and sleekness” into race cars. He also set out to pay tribute to his favorite era of cars: “I’m a big fan of 60’s racing, when surfaces were gorgeously sculpted and shaped.”

Still, Simon admitted it was a bit odd to design a car without a driver. “It’s not easy to create something with character or attitude where the driver’s helmet is missing.” Noting his own love of motorsports, Simon acknowledged the ambivalence other such fans have about autonomous driving. “Everyone has their own opinion and that’s fantastic.”

These won’t be the last photos we see of the Roborace car, either. Simon said its exterior design remains in flux: “I still see a lot of active surfaces to come.” Sverdlov added that other than the shell, the car itself is all set: “All computing units, electronics, and aerodynamics are there. It’s a real car. We’re building it now.”

nvidia autonomous racecar deep green gtc 2016 1 1 Nvidia

There's no cockpit in Nvidia's autonomous racecar because no one can drive it, but they can program it using Nvidia's Drive PX 2 platform.

It’s too expensive to crash

Sverdlov wouldn’t say how much the car costs, but said, “It’s expensive as well, so it’s important not to crash it.”

It’s impossible to discuss racing without discussing crashing, though. When the question came up, Sverdlov danced around the answer. He mentioned, however, that the cars will have vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which implies they probably won’t hit each other. It’s still weird to consider that crashes aren’t necessarily an issue with autonomous cars.

Sverdlov emphasized the Robocar’s autonomy. “Many people from motorsports think it’s going to be a big remote-control car.” But while the Roborace car’s team will program the car to drive, he explained, the car itself will be in charge during actual driving. “All the decisions are happening within the car. Teams cannot manage the car anymore on the course.”

What Roborace means for self-driving cars

The Roborace people are as serious about autonomous driving as they are about the car. “It’s not just motorsport,” says Sverdlov, “but also about everyday life in the near future. Everything we develop will go to public road cars.”

Self-driving cars always seem at least a few years away, however, as vendors hedge their bets and struggle with the challenges of teaching a car how to drive. “I don’t think the automakers understood everything that was required when they started out,” said Patrick Moorhead, Principal of Moor Insights. “They didn’t think about all the sensors, they didn’t think about the maps. They didn’t think they’d need an entire computer.”

It’s impossible to know whether Roborace will have to decelerate its plans as well, but the company has the advantage of starting from scratch, without the burden of legacy that the major automakers have.

Self-driving cars could also change car design in surprising ways, Nvidia’s Shapiro said. “The shapes of cars and the types of materials will change dramatically. If you don’t have accidents, you won’t need steel reinforcement and airbags.”

Roborace provides a deciding moment for Nvidia’s Drive PX 2 and its promise to handle driving data at the speed of human thought—or even superhuman, a term that came up frequently with the Robocar. Nvidia’s Shapiro added that because Drive PX 2 is programmable, it could also improve the car over time. “It’s not that you’re going to buy a car and get a fixed-function vehicle. The expectation of a person is that more and more software development will go into the vehicles, and your car is going to get better over time.”

Many, many questions remain about Roborace’s car and autonomous driving in general. We’ve all been burned by bad software, so the thought of regular car upgrades isn’t necessarily reassuring. If nothing else, however, Roborace’s car could be the best ambassador yet for autonomous driving, making it more intriguing than dubious.

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