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A2RL is Taking Autonomous Racing to the Next Level

The Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL), which will launch its inaugural edition on April 27 at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, is all set to be a spectacular showcase of extreme autonomous racing.

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Combining Artificial Intelligence (AI) with autonomous robotics and motorsport, the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) has lofty ambitions. In its inaugural race on April 27 at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi, the racing league will test the limits of autonomous mobility.

The race day will see 8 teams guide specially designed, autonomous Super Formula (SF23) racecars on the track in 3 challenges. Behind the wheel, coders from universities across China, the UAE, the US, Switzerland, Singapore, Hungary, Italy, and Germany will compete for a prize pot of $2.25 million.

By pioneering new motorsport that brings engineers, programmers, and scientists from around the world to develop and showcase leading-edge driving AI, A2RL aims to take science out of the lab and into the public domain, making the racetrack a testbed for innovation in autonomous technology.

But beyond the spectacle and entertainment, A2RL has a greater ambition: To combine autonomous robotics and AI to improve road safety.

“In the past, the auto industry has dealt with the consequences of accidents. They’ve built cars that minimize the consequence of a crash for the driver. But we’re focused on crash avoidance, which we believe we can do today with autonomous robotics and artificial intelligence,” Tom McCarthy, executive director of Aspire, tells us.   

Organized by ASPIRE, a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), A2RL is part of a series of projects that aim to find novel solutions to society’s biggest challenges. ASPIRE’s other challenges cover sectors like, food security, transportation, and sustainability.

Through projects like A2RL, ASPIRE aims to pioneer future transformative technologies that will drive the diversification of Abu Dhabi’s economy and make Abu Dhabi a global R&D hub for autonomous systems.

Science in the Public Domain

At the races, A2RL will demonstrate the capabilities of autonomous vehicles and engage the public to build confidence and demand for the nascent technology.

McCarthy is clear that AVs will not replace drivers any time soon. He tells us that he foresees low-speed AVs being commercialized for last-mile delivery and transport, with shared piloting or driver-supervised autonomy being integrated into consumer vehicles.

But even partial autonomy is a tough pill to swallow, owing partly to what McCarthy calls the many “false dawns” and over-promising of the AV industry.

“To commercialize the technology, you need two things. First, you need to test and demonstrate these capabilities in the most extreme conditions, and what better place to do that than in motorsport?” he says. The second, he tells us, is to “bring the consumer along for the ride.” Not only must consumers accept the technology for it to be mainstreamed. They need to demand it.

McCarthy argues that, if A2RL can help build technology that will improve road safety, it will turn the tide on autonomy, which has seen both consumer and investor confidence dip in recent years. An economist by profession, McCarthy is clear that “doing science in the public domain” is the only way to rebuild consumer confidence in both autonomy and science.

Yearlong Entertainment

Although there are no drivers behind the wheels, A2RL will look and feel just like any motorsport event (though McCarthy promises more clarity on scoreboards). Perhaps the biggest difference is the level of tech integration.

On the day of the race, fans can visit the Raceum (AI mobility museum), where they can experience an immersive walk through the evolution of mobility and autonomy and pose questions to Falcon AI--Abu Dhabi’s homegrown Generative AI. At the Fan Zone, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Program students from schools across Abu Dhabi will race one-eighth-scale, electric-powered, four-wheel-drive racecars on a parallel track.

In the Grandstand, fans will see autonomous vehicles compete against each other as well as against manned vehicles in 3 races. The races will be streamed over YouTube, Twitch, and Motorsport.TV, with expert analysts and commentators offering a play-by-play. 

But the races, McCarthy tells us, are just one aspect of the demonstration.

To truly engage people and invite innovation, he says, the team has designed a yearlong program through its end-to-end app that will invite fans and engineers to participate in a “marketplace for ideas.” Through the app, they can participate in races designed to give amateur coders the chance to race ghost cars on the track.

In addition to driving engagement and interest in autonomy, McCarthy hopes that this will open the door for differently-abled people to participate in motorsport in ways that they never could have imagined. “You have to have certain physical attributes to be a top-class driver, and most of us look at them and say it could never be me. I hope that we are opening up the possibility to more people becoming heroes they never imagined they could be,” he says. 

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