Step away from the car, feeble human

The autonomous Robocar racer leaves the driver in the paddock.

The driverless race car is coming. That's a car that drives around a track. Very fast. Without a driver. Competing against other fast cars. Also without drivers. Try to contain your excitement.

Back in the 1920s, the "sport" of tether-car racing became the rage. In this pursuit, petrol-powered cars no bigger than a man's shoe raced around a circular track, each anchored to a central post by a control line. There was no human control of steering or speed - the cars simply howled around at full throttle, held in orbit by a tether. To follow the action, spectators had to spin around, giving the cars their familiar name: spindizzies.

The hobby, which was doubtless more enjoyable for the cars' builders than for those who actually showed up to witness the races, managed to enjoy a solid 30 years of popularity, finally fading from public view during the 1950s - coincidentally around the time Nascar racing came onto the American scene, presenting real humans driving untethered cars on actual tracks. (In fairness, tether-car racing still exists as a kind of fringy armchair motorsport, alongside "professional" slot-car and RC-car racing.)

Ultimately, the problem with spindizzies was that they were just machines, and any human influence on their success or failure happened in private, on a workbench the night before, rather than on a racetrack in real time. Humans tend to cheer for the success of - and fear for the safety of - other humans; a mechanical failure or wreck on the spindizzy track was likely an unemotional event for all but the failed cars' builders.

It's not difficult to imagine the autonomous racing cars of the 21st Century inspiring the same sort of indifference. It's machine versus machine, algorithm versus algorithm.

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