Relishing The Joys Of A Demolition Derby For Self-Driving Cars

It’s Spring time!

Makes one hark back to visiting local county fairs and doing all the usual things that one does at such events, including eating scrumptious cotton candy, going on the dizzying whirly rides, and of course watching the annual car-smashing demolition derbies.

Demolition derbies were first popularized in the 1960s and 1970s and became what some people consider still today to be a fully bona fide sport, namely a vaunted motorsport, consisting of drivers competing to see which of them can last the longest in an automotive war of attrition. Typically involving at least a half dozen cars, the drivers overtly attempt to ram into the other cars, hoping to stop the other cars from continuing to participate. The last remaining vehicle able to drive on its own steam in the arena is the proclaimed winner.

There’s nothing more earthly satisfying than hearing the crunch and grind of metal against metal as the cars bash and smash into each other (doing so in a relatively controlled setting and with numerous safety precautions put in place). In addition to the final winner of this gladiator style rampage, there are oftentimes trophies for the “Best in Show” and also a “Mad Dog” award for the driver that was the most aggressive and wildly brazen during the automotive take-no-prisoners battle.

Some would say this is barbaric.

Maybe it should be completely outlawed, some assert.

The drivers are certainly faced with danger, though there are various ways that the risks are somewhat mitigated.

Usually, the cars are stripped of their glass windows and other dangerous debris, and various special alterations are made to protect the gasoline tank from readily exploding (along with allowing only a minimum amount of gasoline in the tank itself during the skirmish). Drivers wear fire-protective suits and helmets. Strict rules of engagement usually dictate that it is not allowed to ram the drivers side door, a restriction intended to reduce the chances of direct injury to the driver.

I’m not suggesting that those precautions make the demolition derby into a risk-free occasion. The odds of something untoward befalling a driver is still quite real.

Why do we get a thrill from watching a demolition derby?

Here’s some potential reasons that are often mentioned:

·        The excitement of seeing cars getting bashed up. We all know that in real life you can’t just smash your car and so there is certainly excitement at being able to watch it happen in real-time, doing so without having to worry about your insurance rates skyrocketing or other such adverse factors.

·        Due to the possibility that the drivers will get shaken-up. I don’t think attendees necessarily are purposely hoping that the drivers will get injured, though admittedly the idea sits in the back of our minds that there is something mighty scary happening, thus heightening the tension of the jarring competition.

·        Revenge against cars. Some people get quite jaded and feel unjustly beholden to their car. If that’s the case, seeing a few randomly chosen cars take some deserved hits is perhaps sweetly satisfying.

·        Innate gladiator spirit. Maybe we have an innate inner-brutish spirit that spurs us toward spectacle and mayhem.

·        Since it is a sport. Devoted fans would say there is no need to somehow proffer any special justification or explanation about watching demolition derbies, just as there is no outsized explanation needed to go watch a baseball game, a football game, etc.

Today’s demolition derbies make use of human drivers. The future of cars consists of self-driving cars. For a self-driving car, there is an AI-based driving system that does all the driving. A true AI-based self-driving car does not need a human-driver and even removes the human accessible driving controls such that only the AI is able to do the driving.

Here’s an interesting question to ponder: What will become of the revered demolition derby once we have true AI-based self-driving cars?

Let’s unpack the matter and see.

Advent Of Self-Driving Cars

With the advent of true self-driving cars, some argue that we will feel less sentimental towards our beloved vehicles. Perhaps we will no longer associate any kind of emotional bonding with cars and will see them as simply interchangeable “robots” that merely ensure that we can get from point A to point B.

Others suggest that we might actually become closer to our cars due to the AI providing a type of mechanized personality and beckoning us to use self-driving cars. Imagine that each time you go for a ride the AI-based driving system remembers you and chats with you, pleasantly so, asking about your day and taking care of the driving task for you.

In any case, what about demolition derbies, will we still have them?

Maybe we will.

There are these possible combinations of how such derbies might be undertaken:

·        Only self-driving cars in the derby (no human passengers allowed)

·        Self-driving cars in the derby and human passengers allowed

·        A mix of self-driving cars and human-driven cars in the derby

·        Only human-driven cars in the derby (no derbies for self-driving cars)

I’ll discuss each of these combinations and explain the nuances involved.

By the way, I don’t consider a remote-controlled car to be the same as a self-driving car. I mention this facet because you could already today setup a bunch of cars that would have remote controls, allowing humans sitting around the arena to control the otherwise empty cars. That’s the kind of approach you often see at the battle bot competitions. I’m not addressing that possibility herein because it doesn’t fit to the theme of truly autonomous self-driving cars.

Only Self-Driving Cars In A Derby

The most novel approach involves having only self-driving cars undertake a demolition derby.

This is essentially an AI versus AI contest.

Do keep in mind that today’s demolition derbies involve a modicum of strategy.

The derby competing human drivers in current times tend to have a battle plan, aiming to perhaps takeout a particular car that they think has the best driver in it, or perhaps they want to knock out of the competition the lesser capable drivers. In short, it isn’t necessarily all randomness and chaos, and instead the drivers are trying to take whatever shrewd actions they can to maximize their own chances of winning the derby.

As such, the AI of a self-driving car might likewise need to be boosted with a capability of being able to be “smart” about how to compete during a demolition derby.

Furthermore, if you are a believer that the AI systems of driverless cars are going to be imbued with a “no illegal driving” dictum, the AI would need to be revised to allow for it to ram the self-driving car into other cars (an act that would otherwise presumably be illegal on normal roadways).

A variant of the self-driving cars aspect is whether human passengers could potentially ride inside the derby bashing cars.

You might find the idea scandalous that people would ride inside a self-driving car while it is trying to ram into the other cars, but I’d bet that some “stunt passengers” would gladly go along for the ride. You could have professionals that become celebrities for their antics while riding inside a battling self-driving car (imagine the YouTube channels), or you could have everyday folks that want the abject thrill of the matter.

Realize that the human passengers might not have any input into the driving task and be there simply as added weight. Of course, one supposes that the passengers could also be interacting with the AI, trying to offer suggestions of what to do, though if the humans do so, keep in mind that I’m emphasizing that the AI can already fully drive the car on its own. As such, the human rider offering ideas can be entirely disregarded by the AI in this case.

This does bring up though a somewhat thorny topic.

If humans do go for a ride during a self-driving car demolition derby, you might argue that this is a violation of a so-called “Laws of Robotics” (attributed often to Issac Asimov), namely that AI is supposed to never try and intentionally harm humans (see my discussion at this link here). Whether such a rule actually exists or not, the AI would presumably need to be coded to allow for the endangerment of humans in this scenario.

Another twist involves the potential interaction among the AI systems of the various self-driving cars engaged in the demolition derby.

We are aiming to have self-driving cars that use V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) electronic communication, enabling the AI driving systems to message each other about the roadway conditions. For example, a self-driving car up ahead of your self-driving car detects that there is debris on the freeway, perhaps a fallen sofa that came off the back of a truck, and via V2V cautions your self-driving car.

During a demolition derby, would the V2V be allowed or should it be shutoff?

Most of today’s demolition derbies have a rule that the human drivers cannot try to gang-up on other drivers. Instead, each driver is supposed to be performing solo and not intentionally getting other drivers to work in unison. Admittedly, this does sometimes happen anyway, in the spur of the moment, but nonetheless it is usually frowned upon.

The organizer of a self-driving car demolition derby would have to establish various rules, including permitting or banning the use of V2V during the contest.

Would you care which of the AI self-driving cars wins at a demolition derby?

If the contest lacks any human passengers, I guess you could be uncaring about which of the self-driving cars prevails. If your perspective is that all AI self-driving cars are pretty much the same, merely disposable robots of a kind, it doesn’t then seem to matter which ones happens to win the derby.

I somehow doubt though that people would take such a view.

I’d bet that inevitably there would be wagering or at least cheering for one of the self-driving cars over another. Maybe the orange painted one versus the yellow painted one. Maybe the larger self-driving car over the smaller self-driving car. Humans seem to inevitably find one reason or another to get excited for and have an allegiance for one thing over another.

Other Variants Of The Demolition Derbies

In a highly spirited display of humankind versus machine, you could mix together the self-driving driverless cars with human driven cars at a demolition derby. Assuming that the rules prevented any kind of ganging up, it would imply that each human driver was on their own and each AI system was on its own.

Would you be rooting for the human drivers, or would you be rooting for the AI systems?

Anyone that thought the AI was overrated would undoubtedly be cheering for the human drivers. For those that relish the high-tech innovation of AI, they would be clamoring for the self-driving cars to prevail.

Yet another variation would be to have a demolition derby with no self-driving cars at all and instead be entirely a human driven contest.

Wait a second, you might say, isn’t that what happens today?

Yes, but in the future, let’s assume that gradually we do away with human driving, and eventually reach a point that driving is almost always done via self-driving cars. Some argue that we won’t ever give up the desire to drive and thus we won’t allow ourselves to become so dependent upon AI driving systems. In whatever way things turn out, if humans driving a car does become a rarity, perhaps the demolition derby will be the only place that you’ll be able to see humans driving a car.

A twist upon this twist is that suppose the demolition derby is not about demolition, and instead has the human drivers showing that they can drive in a straight line, they can do parallel parking, etc. In essence, after we’ve all become utterly deskilled at driving, we might find it as exciting to see humans being able to drive in even the simplest of ways, let alone in destructive ways.


A high-tech person might right away point out that you couldn’t presumably have self-driving cars participate in a demolition derby because the AI depends upon sensitive sensors such as cameras, radar units, LIDAR, ultrasonic devices, and the like.

Those electronic devices would likely get jostled right away and therefore the self-driving car would nearly immediately be blinded, unable to sense the surroundings within the arena being used.

Well, where there is a will, there is a way.

Those sensors could be relocated to other areas of the self-driving car that would be relatively protective for the sensitive devices. Plus, the sensors could be the specially hardened versions that you might see used on a military vehicle. In short, the sensors aspects would not necessarily be a problem per se, nor would the on-board computer processors and memory be an issue (all of which could be protected).

If there is money to be made via undertaking demolition derbies with self-driving cars, I can guarantee you that it will be done.

Another argument would be whether the cost of self-driving cars might be so high that it would not be feasible to have them get ruined in a demolition derby setting. Again, this is readily solved, namely by how much attendees would be charged to watch the demolition derby or via advertising dollars racked up by televising the events. If enough people want to see it, and at a premium price, it really wouldn’t matter how costly the self-driving cars are.

The more beguiling question might be whether we should use self-driving cars in demolition derbies at all. Self-driving cars in demolition derbies could be thrilling, or maybe it is quite untoward or repugnant. We’ll have to wait and see what we decide as a society once true self-driving cars actually emerge.

Shamelessly, I admit that I would be fine with sitting in the stands, eating my cotton candy, and cheering as the AI driving systems duke it out in a battle royale of self-driving cars pitted against other self-driving cars (no passengers!), but that’s just me.

I’d be rooting for the “Mad Dog” (programmed) AI driving system to win.

Katherine E. Ackerman

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