Indy Autonomous Challenge finals show that driverless motorsport isn't ready

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TUM Motorsport, representing the Technische Universität München, picked up the million-dollar top prize at the Indy Autonomous Challenge this weekend.

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The team of Munich-based STEM researchers was awarded first place in a truncated IAM competition. But the rules were changed at the last minute to remove the head-to-head component. Is autonomous racing dead in the water?

What we expected versus what we got

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"Ladies and gentlemen, start your software!" It's a significant change to the usual way races start at Indianapolis. The nine teams were planned to race wheel-to-wheel for the $1.5m prize fund. In the end, the rules were rejigged to reward the fastest 2-lap average speed.

It's a bit of a shame for those of us who had hoped to see how the cars reacted to each other around the four corners of the Brickyard. It seems autonomous technology just isn't quite there yet for high-speed motorsport.

What's next for driverless motorsport?

The IAM isn't the only competition on the scene for autonomous racing cars. Winners TUM have also competed in Roborace. The Roborace competition takes some cues from arcade racing games. In this current beta testing series, the cars dash around real circuits but with virtual reality elements, such as targets to smash en route to the finish.

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TUM celebrate victory at Indianapolis

Will these technologies in time trickle down to the likes of Tesla? If cars can race at high speed avoiding obstacles then surely self-driving road cars will become safer and need less human intervention.

How autonomous racing can be successful

Car control software aside, after this weekend's action it seems to me that there's a clear route to success. Autonomous racing won't ever be quite comparable to the thrill of seeing real drivers or esports competitors make quick decisions. But there's a good chance that thinking outside the box could build an audience.

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Final checks take place on the driverless Dallara cars of IAM

Organisers need to be aware of the limitations inherent in this technology. Setting unachievable goals will allow reporters like me to paint the whole endeavour as a failure. But using mixed-reality challenges, like Roborace is attempting to do, can turn this around. Race fans were initially dismissive of Formula E for being gimmick-laden. But the organisers of the Indy Autonomous Challenge, and Roborace, have an opportunity to define what autonomous racing looks like for the future.

To be honest, I don't mind if the early years of driverless racing are more Mario Kart than Assetto Corsa in seriousness. The joy of showcasing a new technology is that the creators can think outside of the box. If Roborace and IAM think more about potential and opportunity than tradition and past paradigms, autonomous racing will thrive.