An Amorphous Milestone: We Attend the First Autonomous Track Day

First Autonomous Trackday

To the uninitiated, a track day might seem like a very cool-guy sort of thing to do. Take your car out, drive like a stripe-assed ape on a closed course wearing your Räikkönen-spec safety duds, and generally act the hero. The reality of the deal? It’s much more prosaic and nerdy. Drivers geek out over lines, setup, and niggling issues with their automobiles and speak in tongues largely impenetrable, all in pursuit of a second here, a tenth there. In short, the events are packed to the gills with study, trial, and error, making them an oddly perfect venue for the percolating autonomous-vehicle startup scene. Joshua Schachter just happened to be the first guy to realize it.

First Autonomous Trackday

Over a decade ago, Schachter created Delicious (which you may remember as del.icio.us), eventually sold the social-bookmarking site to Yahoo!, moved on to Google, and then left to re-enter the startup game both as an angel investor and with Tasty Labs, which he co-founded and eventually sold to Walmart. Schachter, then, is a guy with a name and a record of success in Silicon Valley. But if we showed up at Thunderhill Raceway Park’s technical West Course hoping for glorious demonstrations of spleen-torquing pilotless speed, we were disappointed.

First Autonomous Trackday

Audi’s people brought out Bobby, one of the company’s autonomous RS7s, for a demonstration, but said they were doing no development work on the car at the track day. The guys from Denso, who’d hauled up a Tesla Model S equipped with an array of additional sensors by AutonomouStuff, said they were simply logging data. We did cadge a quick ride around the paddock in a self-driving GEM fettled by Varden Labs, but it seemed no more revelatory than our ride in Google’s Koala Car last fall. George Hotz, who has made big noise by flaming Elon Musk, brought out his cobbled-together Acura ILX, eventually managing to creep around the circuit without putting a wheel off.

First Autonomous Trackday

In short, although Schachter imagines this first meeting as the seed from which an autonomous racing series will grow, this first track day felt more like a mini-convention for the startup players in the autonomy field. While your author’s main exposure to vehicular autonomy has come via the heavy hitters in the segment—Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Google, and so forth—what was happening at Thunderhill was more akin to the post–World War II scene on the dry lakes northeast of Los Angeles, where young men who’d returned from the European and Pacific theaters with a thirst for adventure and a modicum of mechanical skill snatched up 1930s cars, stripped off unnecessary parts, and tried to hit 100 mph out in the dusty endorheic basins.

Sensors in some cases seemed to be held in place with tape. Small server racks were hodgepodged into vehicle trunks. Roof racks meant to carry sporting goods were repurposed to mount lidar sensors and GPS antennae.

First Autonomous Trackday

At midday on Sunday, we hopped into PolySync’s Kia Soul with Chris More. He’d spent Saturday lapping the course at speed in 24 Hours of Lemons vet Zandr Milewski’s BMW Z3 M, which had been equipped with sensors to gather information about the course. Our laps on Sunday were with a film crew, so they were considerably slower, although More took care to utilize the proper racing line so as not to disturb the data set. Riding shotgun, we sat in front of a laptop. The system was smart enough to pick out that the camera vehicle was a truck, and labeled it as such. Gazing at the screen proved mesmerizing, its waves of magenta pulsating as the terrain changed around the car.

First Autonomous Trackday

While Silicon Valley recognizes that what automakers do year in and year out is an incredibly difficult task, they’re looking toward a future when the essential components of an automobile will be fewer—electric drive, a simplified bus consisting of three easily swappable ECUs—and where the automobile essentially exists as a platform to run code and transport people. PolySync, for example, is betting on its software to become a de facto autonomous-vehicle operating system. While Google may have gobs of money and a fleet of Lexuses racking up self-driving miles, Portland-based PolySync, which grew out of autonomous-vehicle parts seller AutonomouStuff, sees itself giving an edge to both tinkerers and major automakers alike, allowing them to concentrate on creating new features, rather than building code from the ground up.

First Autonomous Trackday

It’s hard to say whether Schachter’s initial gathering was a success as a conventional track day, but standing there trackside, watching the cars motor politely by, we did feel it was the beginning of something, much in the way that Tesla’s Roadster reveal did in 2006, back before Elon got his hair done and figured out how to work a crowd. The people on the ground this past Memorial Day weekend may not be the big players in the space a decade from now, at least not in the form that we see them today—such is the fickle nature of the Valley, after all—but this isn’t the last we’ve seen of this crew.

First Autonomous Trackday

In the 1970s, a group of folks with an interest in circuits would get together to talk shop in Menlo Park. The Homebrew Computer Club birthed a scene that would ultimately see the emergence of Apple Computer. We only recognized the significance of the speed runs at El Mirage and Muroc after the fact. The Homebrew Computer Club was not mythic in 1975. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from watching Tesla, it’s not to bet on the minutiae of what’s supposed to happen when, but rather to gauge what happens once whatever happens happens. And not to bet against it happening, whatever it is.

Nineteen years after the end of World War II, the hot-rodders found themselves co-opted by Detroit, which gave rise to the muscle-car era. Nine years after the first Homebrew Computer Club meeting, Apple launched the Macintosh. And a decade after Tesla unveiled the Roadster in a hangar at Santa Monica Airport, Elon Musk is finally close to realizing the product he wanted to build from the start. If it was low on thrills, the first Autonomous Trackday felt like a milestone. We’re anxious to see what the lens of history winds up showing us about it.

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