Automotive > Autonomous Vehicles Blog

'The Secret Race:' Driving Yourself vs. Self-Driving

by Roger Lanctot | 12月 24, 2019

First of all, let me say that no one should break the law. No one should violate speed limits. No one should drive a vehicle in such a way that might put other users of the road at risk. It is wrong to do what Alex Roy and others have done in driving at high speed across the U.S. to set new records – but the effort does have lessons for advancing safe driving behavior in a world where technology companies are seeking to eliminate human driving altogether. 

Alex Roy is an ardent advocate for human driving. He is an outspoken critic of autonomous driving or “self-driving” car technology intended, as he sees it, to remove mankind from behind the steering wheel – in fact, removing the steering wheel entirely.

The sixth principle of Roy’s 10-point Human Driving Manifesto:

“We Are Pro-Steering Wheel. No vehicle should be deployed without a steering wheel, and the Parallel automation to prevent a human driver from making a mistake.”

Roy sees the development of self-driving car technology as nothing less than a conspiracy to further marginalize mankind’s free will by eliminating the primary, preferred transportation choice – the individually owned and operated vehicle known as the car. This Roy-ian mantra is reflected in the man’s fixation on rally driving and – in the recent past – beating the record for driving non-stop across the U.S.

The effort is captured in a video, released on Itunes and Amazon Prime last Saturday, called “Apex: The Secret Race across America.” The race is secret because once law enforcement became aware of what was, briefly, an annual endeavor, the drivers became prey in a cat and mouse (car and cop?) cross-country run.

Apple and Amazon links:

The movie captures the scientific and psychological attachment that drivers like Roy have to the challenge of high-speed, cross country driving. While the infamous “Cannonball Run” movie, named after Cannonball Baker who notched a 55-hour cross country time while riding a motorcycle in 1920, attracted unwanted attention to the drivers, it also drew nerds to the effort and a more serious and determined campaign to set new, faster times.

The more serious drivers quickly established a much tougher time to beat of 32 hours and 7 minutes in 1983. “The Secret Race” chronicles the efforts of Roy and his co-driver and an expansive team of tech tinkerers, researchers, legal support, airborne observers, and an on-board videographer to beat the 1983 record in 2007.

The movie documents the scope of Roy’s – and other drivers’ – necessary race preparations to take on the cross-country run. These efforts speak to both the capabilities and limitations of technology to enable the cross country effort.

The technical preparations include the selection of a powerful but relatively inobtrusive BMW E39 M5 tricked out with antennas for citizen’s band radio communications, a police scanner, ground-to-air communications with a spotter plane, and police radar detection equipment. Roy modifies the suspension, brakes, shock absorbers, and clutch of the vehicle and adds a kill switch for the tail lights.

The Roy BMW is equipped with a 16-gallon fuel cell and night vision equipment. The passenger cabin – as is visible in the movie – is populated by multiple navigation and computer screens for managing and interpreting local driving laws, law enforcement behavior, weather, and navigation.

In preparation for the race, Roy has spreadsheeted out the details of local laws regarding reckless endangerment – in particular to understand the specific penalties and speed limit thresholds that might translate to felonious behavior and a trip to a local jail or worse, The movie notes that California has the most lenient laws in this regard.

Much is made in the movie of Roy’s airborne support for spotting law enforcement along the road ahead. There are only a couple of tense moments in the movie when the on-board police scanner picks up on local law enforcement transmissions which clearly indicate that the blue BMW M has been spotted – with smokies in hot pursuit. There are a couple of close calls.

It’s a two driver effort with Alex sharing the driving task with pal Dave Maher. It is up to the co-driver to monitor and anticipate local law enforcement behavior, navigation, weather, and speed. Maher and Roy share time behind the wheel with time behind image stabilized binoculars for spotting police vehicles hopefully well in advance.

After all the months-long preparation and technology and airborne support, the “Secret Race” across America re-affirms the importance of the human driver. Roy’s human driving gospel is revealed in the many quintessentially human moments of decision making related to spotting law enforcement, anticipating and responding to their behavior, and interacting with truck and car drivers along the way (don’t pass them too quickly – or risk being “turned in” to the authorities).

At speeds often exceeding 110 miles an hour and averaging more than 90 MPH, there is little room for error or inattention. Eyes are on the road – and eyes are assisting from the skies overhead.

One might imagine, as I did, what an autonomous cross-country competition might look like and how it would work. But the critical human element revealed in Roy’s documentary (cleverly narrated by Ice T) cannot easily be replicated by machines.

Can a machine politely pass a tractor trailer without triggering its driver – or nimbly avoid a tractor trailer “threatening” to shift into the high speed left lane by turning on its left-side flashers? Can a machine pull along the right side of a tractor trailer to “hide” from traffic enforcement cruisers parked on the median? Can a machine be programmed to break the law?

Everything about “The Secret Race” points to the importance of the “meat” behind the wheel. While autonomous race cars may be “tuned” to operate on a track without a human, it is a far different matter to drive cross country at high speed, safely, at a record-setting pace. This is no geo-fenced autonomous vehicle exercise. This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco.

But let’s think about THAT challenge for a moment. What if a new set of nerds set out to match or top the latest cross country driving record – most recently broken yet again last month – with an autonomous vehicle. What would it mean? What would it prove? Would anyone be willing to give up driving forever in recognition of the feat? Not likely.

Even if it could be or were to be done, a fully autonomous cross-country drive would be pointless. It would only serve to validate the logistical efforts involved in making it possible – and those efforts would be very human indeed.

Roy’s achievement is surpassed serially on an almost annual basis – as explained at the close of the film. The latest record breakers, Arne Toman and Doug Tabbutt, crossed the country in 27 hours and 25 minutes this November with an average speed of 103 MPH and a top speed of 193 MPH. To Roy’s preparatory efforts of spreadsheets, airborne spotters, and tech gear, they added thermal imaging to detect any lurking roadside law enforcement representatives and an army of drivers scouting the route in advance.

In the end, “The Secret Race” is a tribute to safety and preparation. Roy is an advocate of both the fair and equitable enforcement of traffic laws as well as the raising of driver training and testing requirements. The full Human Driving Manifesto can be found here:

Alex Roy, himself, is something of an enigma and, most recently, director of special operations for Argo AI – a self-driving car technology company currently working with investors Ford Motor Company and Volkswagen AG. Roy is also an angel investor, founder of the Human Driving Association, editor-at-large for The Drive, host of The Autonocast podcast, co-host of /Drive on NBC Sports and author of “The Driver.”

Fundamentally, Roy is famous for being Alex Roy. Of Roy, The Drive co-founder and historian Josh Vietze says: “Alex, today, and always has been a tremendous kind of advocate for driver safety, for safety on the road. Alex to this day is one of the saf… no, I can’t say that.” So, yeah, “The Secret Race” captures that knife’s edge experience of driving safely while maybe not always minding all traffic laws. We all know how that feels, right? Go, Alex, go.

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