Though the real Rossi and his robot racer rival have yet to go head-to-head on the same track, the newest version of the virtual Valentino is making progress. Plus, the path to droid-driven racers is absolutely entertaining.
In 2014, when Yamaha Motor Ventures and Laboratory, Silicon Valley joined forces with SRA International, they had one mission: to create a MotoGP-level autonomous robot racer that could out-ride Valentino "The Doctor" Rossi. “Otherwise,” laughed Hiroshi Saijo, Project Manager, “that project has no meaning!” Amazing.
Watch the 2015 video and it’s difficult to stifle the laughs. For starts, the childish voice-over narration, in child-like awe of his competition was far more funny than fierce, despite the fact that he is describing rather revolutionary riding technology. The training wheels didn’t help either.
Introduced in 2017, Motobot 2.0 looks much more likely to tackle the challenge. Two years of growth and this robot rider and his bike have learned more about themselves. The voice sounds slightly wiser, the side wheels are up and speeds are better.
In Phase 1, the focus was getting the bike to ride solo and manage a low-speed slalom. Starting with a carbon fiber shell to achieve a total system weight of only 99 lb (robot also not included), everything on the Motobot was designed to exceed the abilities of world-class racers. Next step was getting it past 125 mph without crashing. Check and check! Now onto breaking Rossi's lap time.
In order to maintain its “target path” while also accelerating without losing stability, the computer was taught to manage all the knowledge and reflexes of real riders in both the straightaways and the corners. This achievement was part of the final stages, but it’s also exactly where the human racer excels.
It’s visible to the naked eye—no computer algorithms required. Both Rossi and Robot can find and follow the apex but only the humanoid can feel how the tires are responding to the tarmac at that final moment when daring decision make all the difference and only the real rider has the capacity to be the perfect counter weight in a turn. Rossi drags his knees through the turns whereas Moto-man stays virtually upright.
Perhaps that's the most obvious reason why Motobot was 30 seconds slower than an underwhelming Rossi lap time. Even a “speed-control-logic” that combines information about gearing, braking, acceleration and feedback from the engine can’t compete with how a racer like Rossi can compute and then control the machine at high speeds in order to edge out the competition.
Motobot has certainly improved upon its earlier incarnations and it’s a lot of fun to watch, but in the end, “We The Humans” still prevail. For all you fabulous mechanical-mavens, here’s the full history, crammed with tantalizing tech-talk.