Are we ready for an AV Dakar?
When I was young, I had the privilege of visiting France with my parents. As a young car enthusiast, I was awestruck by images of the now legendary Paris-Dakar Rally Raid. The spectacular footage of bespoke race cars, homebuilt buggies and giant support trucks bounding over sand dunes and splashing through the Senegal surf was both breathtaking and inspiring. I was determined that one day I would conquer the Dakar myself, a lifelong dream that is likely now well out of reach, but that nonetheless captured my imagination for the better part of the four decades the race (and I) have been around. The logistical and psychological challenge truly tested the absolute limits of drivers, teams, and technology of the day, and continues to be a showcase for extreme driving to this day.
Tomorrow, the 40th edition of The Dakar drops the flag in Lima, Peru, a shift from the race's African roots dictated by security concerns a decade ago. It's largely become a corporate showcase, with big manufacturers dominating the competition year after year to show their technical prowess, but the challenge has not been diminished and the small teams and solo racers continue to make the race special. Just finishing the Dakar is never a given, even for the best-funded teams and the cream-of-the-crop drivers. For the machines that run the race, from motorcycles and quads to the massive trucks, finishing is a true test of equipment. For the riders, drivers and navigators, a test of endurance, willpower, and skill with pace notes. So when I saw GM's SURUS autonomous EV truck platform, I couldn't help but think that an AV Dakar would be the perfect opportunity to challenge the machinery and technology for the next generation.
SURUS stands for Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure, but the name is clearly inspired by the Carthaginian general Hannibal's last war elephant in his campaigns against the Roman Empire. And what better place to test a platform named after an African general than the old Dakar route across the Sahara? This could be an excellent opportunity to test the capabilities of not only a rugged EV platform, but also different AV systems. While a GPS system could easily guide the next-generation machines across the desert on road, it would do nothing for the myriad obstacles and driving challenges that would be presented by a cross-desert trek. Could an autonomous truck successfully be "taught" to navigate different surfaces, from soft sand to rocky outcrops? Could the EV technology, from batteries to electric motors, withstand the intense heat, dryness and rugged terrain? I'd like to find out, and I imagine many potential customers would too. I also think it would make for a compelling race if multiple platforms, brands and teams got involved.
Unlike Roborace, where identical cars are supplied by the organizers but the autonomous software is the key differentiator, a SURUS-based competition could use GM's base superstructure to build variations on typology, layout, and AV systems. Developers of autonomous software could use an "off-the-shelf" GM truck and simply install their codebase and sensors, while specialty truck manufacturers could do the opposite, creating bespoke racing bodies and using stock AV. The different combinations would give insight into many variables in the process, hopefully leading not just to better systems, but also some real competition. The results would be very interesting at worst, and amazing at best. If the event took off, it would be a fantastic way to showcase the massive technological leaps that AV tech is capable of year-to-year, but also to constantly improve the racing itself.
An AV Dakar would also be a potentially safer way to re-introduce racing to the West-African countries that were abandoned by The Dakar due to war, terrorism and corporate greed. While autonomous vehicles would not present the human challenge of the original, a shift to pure technological challenge would minimize some of the risks that led the race to leave, and its smaller scale could carry on some of the humanitarian aspects that the original race championed for much of its existence.
So while my participation in The Dakar will probably never happen, I'd like to think that the spirit of the race could continue for a new generation of cars, technology and fans. Many car enthusiasts will sneer at the idea of AV racing—and at the moment that may be justified—but I believe that it will eventually become a mainstream idea that the next generation will embrace. I think a two-pronged Dakar, the human-driven adventure through South America as well as an AV challenge through Africa, would be an exciting way to start the next generation of racing.
Article and sketch by Drew Meehan