Abu Dhabi's first driverless cars race for $2.25 million prize pot, witness nail-biting finish

- More than 10,000 spectators were present as four AI-powered cars vied at Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL)


Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Mon 29 Apr 2024, 2:52 PM

Last updated: Mon 29 Apr 2024, 3:02 PM

There were no Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, or their swanky F1 cars on the iconic tracks of Yas Marina Circuit, but the Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League (A2RL) delivered all the vroom, fun, and sporting entertainment in its inaugural edition.

Under the lights, it was a new experience for more than 10,000 spectators and many more catching the action online as four AI-powered driverless cars raced on the tracks in a first worldwide attempt.

Overall, despite some blips and spins, the A2RL organised by ASPIRE – a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s Advanced Technology Research Council (ATRC), offered a fascinating glimpse into the future of racing. With each team competing and completing their laps, the successful edition ignited a spark for a new racing revolution and took a major step in reshaping the future of mobility.

What are autonomous cars?

Each of the eight teams got AI-powered Super Formula cars – the second fastest racing series in the world after Formula One. It featured a four-cylinder turbocharged engine, six-speed gearbox, dual antenna GPS, seven cameras, and the capability to hit a speed of 300km per hour.

The cars included several sensors, which generated gigabytes of data for the team of experts to analyse and enhance efficiency among other aspects of racing. It used radar sensors, and electro-magnetic waves, to know about the distance between obstacles (other cars and sidewalls).

Lidar technology helped these cars understand their surroundings by creating 3D photos of the moving and fixed obstacles hundreds of times per second.

How teams vied in driverless cars?

A computer inside each car worked as the brain using all the sensor information to understand the situation and decide what it needed to do next on the track. Each team got an empty computer to write their code, and that is where the differentiating factor came in. Teams of scientists, developers, and coders incorporating cutting-edge technologies into racing cars faced a complex task in coding.

From understanding grip levels, managing tire temperatures, predicting opponent movements, performing successful overtakes, and operating the cars right at the limit of grip, the AI needed to perform all the things that racing drivers do intuitively.

Additionally, with four autonomous cars racing on the track simultaneously, it marked a world-first attempt that added another layer of challenge. In a last-lap shootout, the German outfit the Technical University of Munich (TUM) snatched first place by overtaking Italian team Unimore, which slowed and stopped on the track.

‘Evolution of autonomous mobility’

After eight teams vied with one another over two days of races and challenges, TUM beat back the competition with its coding and engineering skills in a world-first, four-car race finale to claim the winner’s share of the $2.25 million prize pot. Theyab bin Mohamed bin Zayed presented the championship trophy, along with Faisal Al Bannai, secretary general, ATRC, and strategic research and advanced technology affairs adviser to the UAE President.

Simon Hoffmann, team principal of TUM, noted the event was “nothing short of extraordinary”, and the finale was a “defining moment”.

“We are thrilled with the outcome. It speaks volumes about our collective engineering prowess, coding expertise, and sheer determination. It’s a testament to the incredible power of AI driving the evolution of autonomous mobility into the future.”

F1 driver prevails over AI car

Spectators enjoyed the riveting ‘AI versus Human’ race, where Abu Dhabi’s Technology Innovation Institute (TII) pitted its autonomous car against former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat, who managed to hold his own and edge past his autonomous adversary by 10.38 seconds in a spectacular 45-minute race.

Faisal Al Bannai noted that the league has sparked a race revolution.

“This event isn't just a race. It's a transformative moment where technology, imagination, and ambition converge. A2RL serves as a beacon, inspiring the next generation through physical and virtual realities, while shaping a future where the impossible becomes achievable.”

Dr Sultan Al Jaber, Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology, and group MD and CEO of ADNOC, as title sponsor, said: “Advances in artificial intelligence promise to transform every industry. The A2RL demonstrates the application of AI and as title sponsor, ADNOC is proud to help push the frontiers of science and innovation.”

Fans also enjoyed insightful STEM workshops, intriguing VR challenges, simulators, doodle cars, and an AI Museum, among other activities. The event concluded with a spectacular display of fireworks and drones, illuminating the iconic circuit.


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