Lucas di Grassi Says Autonomous, EV Tech Won’t Kill Traditional Racing

goodwood festival of speed
Lucas di Grassi: Autonomous Cars Won't Kill RacingMichael Cole - Getty Images
  • Autonomous race cars might beat human-driven counterparts one day, ‘but people still like to see which is the best human,’ former Formula 1 driver and current Formula E racer Lucas di Grassi says.

  • Di Grassi says his fellow drivers have called him ‘a turkey preaching for Thanksgiving’ but insists that’s not true.

  • Brazilian driver likens fresh technological frontiers to computer-generated chess masters: new capability without destructive effect.

Jason Fiorito, meet Lucas di Grassi.

Fiorito, president of multi-use Pacific Raceways near Seattle, said what he wants to see is “a driver car compete with a driverless car. I want to watch a person beat a computer. I want to watch a person beat an autonomous vehicle.”


Di Grassi, the 2016-17 ABB FIA Formula E champion who will compete in the series’ June 29-30 doubleheader at Portland International Raceway in Oregon, has plenty of experience with just the kind of match-ups Fiorito is wanting to witness.

The Brazilian veteran who drives for the ABT Cupra team was, from 2017-2019, the CEO of a company that specializes in autonomous racing called Roborace.

2024 berlin e prix round 9
Lucas di Grassi chats with Formula E CEO Jeff Dodds earlier this year in Berling.Sam Bagnall - Getty Images

“We wanted to create an algorithm, a driverless car that was better than a racing driver at the race. So every three or four months we did a competition, me against the car to see what was the gap, the difference. And the last time we recorded the video, it was equal, the lap time. It evolved from being much slower to being equal. And then we stopped the company. We ran out of funds. But still, I think nowadays if we revive the program, there is no chance for humans. The computer will be much faster.”

Drag racer Bob Tasca III, a Ford Motor Company crusader who has a keen eye on EV technology as both a racer and owner of multiple dealerships throughout the U.S., backed up di Grassi. “We would lose 10 out of 10 times. An autonomous car, it just repeats. The human element is what makes racing a variable,” Tasca said. “Autonomous technology, it’s going to do the same thing every time. The good drivers are the ones that screw up less, under pressure, under the different circumstances.”

While Tasca holds out little hope for humans against computers, he did say, “I don’t want to see autonomous racing come and put me out of business.” That’s where he and di Grassi would disagree. Di Grassi insisted that reality – and the advent of all-electric race cars – won’t sap the life out of motorsports.

“I understand,” he said of the fear, “but that's not true.” Just the same, di Grassi’s fellow racers needled him about autonomous racing. He said, “That's what the other drivers told me, that I was a turkey preaching for Thanksgiving.” He said that’s “not true at all.”

2024 berlin e prix round 10
Lucas di Grassi drives for the ABT Cupra Formula E team.Andrew Ferraro - Getty Images

Di Grassi used the game of chess as an example that all-electric racing – what Formula E showcases – won’t threaten motorsports, either. He cited the well-documented 1997 global attraction that was IBM-built Deep Blue’s triumph over World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. No human since then has defeated a computer in a chess tournament. But it didn’t kill the sport, di Grassi emphasized.

“Exactly,” he said. “Nowadays, any engine on a cell phone can beat any Grand Master. So AI beats every human, but we never had so many chess players in the world as we have right now.” He contended that EV technology will not kill auto racing, either: “So, even if you have a computer, which is the fastest thing ever, that will make our roads safer. But people still like to see which is the best human.

“I don't think it'll kill the sport. It's a natural progression. We have to embrace it. We have to make this somehow also relevant to this type of technology, which is the future and preserve the sport at the same time,” di Grassi said.

But are the cars the stars or are the drivers?

“The stars are already both," di Grassi said. "If I don't have a good car, I cannot win by myself. I need a good car. I need a good team. So the cars are always part of the equation—in Formula 1, the same. If you take [reigning and four-time F1 champion] Max Verstappen and put him in a Haas or a Williams, he will not win races.”

Fans, for the most part, buy tickets to Formula E races to watch the drivers, not to see the cars. “That is correct,” di Grassi said, “but the manufacturers put money because they sell cars.

"There is the entertainment side and the human side, and there is the manufacturer and technology side. Both have to coexist in a good balance. I think that's the right formula, because you need the manufacturers and you need the public. So you have to keep these two aligned.”