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What will the ACO reveal Saturday morning?

June 13, 2014

When the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) announced its annual press conference would be held on Saturday, prior to the start of the 82nd running of the 24 Heures du Mans, that was a sea change worth noting.

The Friday, late morning gathering at the museum that marks the main entry to the Le Mans circuit has been writ in stone for as long as anyone can remember. Changing the date? There must be something brewing that the ACO has to wait another day to announce.

Rumors swirling through the Le Mans city and racetrack gathering concern the entry of a Ferrari-based LM P1 car in 2015; Nissan has already announced it will join the LM P1 ranks next year with a Ben Bowlby-designed coupe, one that will compete alongside the Audi, Toyota, Porsche prototypes in the LM P1-H hybrid classification.

Last year’s press conference was an anti-climactic affair. Nothing new came out of that particular meeting, leaving extremely busy team managers, owners, and other interested parties wondering why they bothered? What will this year’s Saturday morning gathering reveal?

A Ferrari LM P1 would be a nice addition to next year’s 55-car paddock (plus Garage 56 for technically innovative non-points-paying entry). The talk we’re hearing centers around the possibility of a semi-autonomous vehicle that would alternately be driven by a human one lap and then autonomously navigate the nearly 8.5-mile Le Mans circuit the next. Sounds like something Google might do? Sounds like an innovation that’s being talked about throughout the world?

An autonomous 24-hour racing vehicle would appear to go against the grain of what endurance racing construes itself to be. The meld of man and machine to conquer all obstacles of track length, vagaries of competition, pratfalls, mechanical ailments and weather over a period of 24 hours are what we think about when faced with racing ideology.

This would contravene all of those things, wouldn’t it?

At a time when Formula E is coming to mainstream public attention and presenting electric-powered racing cars in competition, when Nissan’s ZEOD race car intends to take an entire lap at speed using electric power (starting this Saturday, in fact), a semi-autonomous racing car doesn’t seem to be something that would be out of the question. After all, VW did win the Darpa Challenge in 2005…

So put it in Garage 56 – and make in 2016, not next year – with a “driver” to do every other lap. On alternate laps the driver will take his/her hands from the wheel, remove feet from pedals – all verified by onboard cameras – and let’s have a go. Should there be any systemic (Hal?) problems, the driver can regain control of this vehicle nearly instantly, but the sources said the car will “actually be safer when running without human intervention.”

Imagine a prototype car racing at Le Mans in driverless mode, and realize this could be much less than the challenge of putting a driverless car on public roads – that have no corner workers, capable drivers and proper barriers. (Le Mans does consist of proper public roads after all)

Is this what the ACO will talk about when it gathers constituents together come Saturday morning? Or is it a ruse someone dreamed up? We’ll find out.

By Anne Proffit

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