SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Gentlemen, start your algorithms.
With the rise of digital e-sports, elite video gamers draw millions of viewers to online broadcasts and armchair pilots race drones through obstacle courses. Now there is a movement to turn driverless car racing into the next big thing.
Kinetik, a London investment fund led by Russian entrepreneur Denis Sverdlov, grabbed attention for that idea this month by releasing a rendering of a lime-green prototype resembling a Formula One car, but without room for a driver.
Sverdlov, who intends to stage a racing series called Roborace alongside the Formula E electric-drive racing series, envisions cars battling for pole position at the indecent speed of 180 mph, like life-size slot cars. Freed from having to protect a human behind the wheel, teams could tinker with software and crash with impunity, pushing the limits of technology and speeding the arrival of self-driving cars.
"Our heroes are not drivers," Sverdlov told the audience this month at a conference held by chipmaker Nvidia Corp., which has agreed to supply high-powered computers to participating teams. "Our heroes are engineers."
Sverdlov, former CEO of Moscow-based telecom company Yota, is best known for the YotaPhone, a quirky double-screened smartphone with a color display on the front and a low-energy e-ink display on the back.
To design the Roborace prototype, he hired Daniel Simon, a former Volkswagen stylist who designed the dueling "light cycles" from Disney's 2010 reboot of the classic science-fiction film Tron.
Some autonomous driving experts are skeptical of Sverdlov's plan to stage the first Roborace contests during the 2016-17 Formula E season, as he has yet to explain where Kinetik will get its cars or how it will achieve its target speeds.
Human drivers can see about 300 meters down a track. Even the costly lidar scanners that Google uses for its experimental self-driving cars struggle around 200 meters, making Formula One speeds difficult to achieve, said Josh Hartung, CEO of Harbrick, an Oregon-based startup developing software for autonomous cars.