What's going to happen to Formula One when it goes fully electric, and today's lack of overtaking is added to tomorrow's lack of sound to create the fastest yawn-fest on wheels? McLaren has been thinking a lot about how to save premier-tier motorsport in the future, and has presented a vision for a 2050 electric Grand Prix.
After an "extensive research process" consulting with a wide range of Formula One fans, McLaren's Applied Technologies group went away to create something it felt could keep the sport fun and watchable in the future. Combining electric drive technologies with shape-shifting aeros, artificially intelligent co-driver systems, neural links, emotional displays and wildly futuristic circuits, the team created a concept called MCLExtreme.
Let's start with the cars. McLaren believes that F1 cars will be capable of about 500 km/h (310 mph) by 2050, which is a decent speed to be sure. They will also be fully electric – McLaren is more or less resigned to this fate, and indeed excited to take advantage of its expertise in Formula E powertrain building as the electrification process ramps up.
They won't need to plug in to charge; McLaren believes they'll charge wirelessly as they roll down pit lane. Go slow, and you'll get more energy back in. Go faster, and you'll lose less time. There's no need for tire changes, either – they'll apparently be self-repairing jiggers that never lose their grip. You might also be able to steal energy from cars in front of you if you can follow them closely enough.
The cars will have shape-shifting capabilities, too, sitting wide in the corners to maximize grip and stability, but pulling themselves in as narrow as possible to reduce drag as they furiously charge down the straights. Why not, eh?
The cabins will have to be closed over because 500 km/h winds would not be friendly to exposed human body parts. Thus, even the tiny view the spectators get of today's F1 drivers would be obscured. McLaren believes people need to see some sort of human element in the competition, and proposes that the drivers could be neurally jacked in to circuits that can read their emotions and display them visually on the outside of the car, which might turn red if they're angry, yellow or green if they're elated, and presumably brown if they overcook a corner.
There's already all sorts of emotion-tracking gear starting to get built into high-end cars at the moment, and the idea of putting such information on display takes it to an interesting place that could clearly be capitalized on by sharp opponents. And McLaren sees this emotional projection as a two-way thing, where the emotions of fans in the grandstand could be shown back to the drivers as they go.
As F1 loses its relevance to road cars, which will presumably be predominantly self-driving by 2050, McLaren smells an opportunity to switch things up a little and make top tier racing a development test bed for artificial intelligence, incubating the technology in competition much like it has done with all manner of engine, drivetrain and chassis technologies.
Sounds like a bit of a reach to us, but McLaren is careful not to take the steering wheel out of human hands. AI integration at this level might be represented by a computer co-driver that can take the place of pit boards and dash consoles; learn drivers' preferences and peculiarities; and track their physical and emotional parameters to develop real-time race strategy updates that could be fed to the driver through a helmet based "holographic heads-up display."
Tracks are going to have to change, too, if cars are going to get around at these kinds of speeds. And F1 fans know what they want: longer, wider, faster tracks with aggressive banking. McLaren wants to see high speeds leading to much longer racetracks, perhaps even extending the Monza track so that it loops out around Milan and comes back for a 40-km (24-mi) round trip.
The ideas go on, but this future vision fails to take one thing into account that seems kind of central to us. Who's going to watch it? Will people who gave up their steering wheels to self-driving robots decades earlier be remotely interested in who can get a car around a track faster than someone else? Will car racing go the way of horse racing, no longer interesting for its skill or technology, only of interest as something to gamble on?
Will car companies, who will be reduced to mobility service providers (and volume manufacturers for other mobility service providers) need racing any more, in a world where nobody cares what badge is on the anonymous electric pod that picks them up and deposits them somewhere else? Will there still be billions of dollars going into racing once all the petrolheads are dead?
Sports and prestige car companies are sure hoping things don't go that way, but we've got real doubts about the younger generations' passion for these things. Motorsport could well end up being a relic of the 20th century, like the gasoline automobile, replaced by something we can't even see on the horizon yet. What do you think?
Check out a video about the project below.
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