Racing simulators are the new history books

I don’t drive, I don’t own a car and have never really driven (except for this one time when I kinda hustled my way into driving a sports car on a racing track, but that’s a story for another time). Everyday more and more people are born that will likely never have their own automobile. In places like the United States and São Paulo, where I live, that future seems to be counterintuitive, or at least countercultural. But I do believe it is likely that kids now are much less likely to ever drive than their parents were. Self driving cars are real and out on roads. The push for alternative and collective modes of transportation to be the norm is only growing because of ecological and urban mobility concerns.

Carrying a general apathy for racing simulators and with that vision of the future in mind I spoke to Stephen Viljoen, Director of Project CARS 2. It’s one of those mainstream simulators made by people obsessed with every little detail of the cars and tracks it reproduces. I might not be into cars, but I dig the developers’ approach.

We’re sort of time travelling, we’re allowing people to experience something that simply doesn’t exist anymore.

The first aspect of historical preservation that Viljoen called my attention to was the presence of tracks that are no longer around: “You can’t go and drive on the old Monza or the old Rouen […] We’re sort of time travelling, we’re allowing people to experience something that simply doesn’t exist anymore.” Since the team can’t laser scan these long gone tracks, they have to do a lot of research, “we get historic footage and for some of those tracks there are still license holders… We just get whatever footage we can and we do the best job we can with the reference that we can get.”

Far from just preserving places or old models of cars that might not exist anymore or are just accessible to very rich collectors, racing simulators are a way to use videogames to preserve the experience of driving for future generations, that will eventually not even know what a steering wheel was for. “There’s a thought that struck me, that we are the generation who was going to have to explain to our children why cars had mirrors. Because these [AI] systems are not going to need mirrors. Why cars had headlights or brake lights. Cars themselves can look completely different [in the future].”

To Viljoen, games like Project CARS 2 are a great tool to teach a new generation what cars were like now and during their first century of existence: “We’re basically creating The Matrix. With the advent of VR and us recreating weather systems — and basically the planet as accurately as we can — and then plugging you in there through VR. That’s pretty much what we’re doing. So our kids will be able to play this and experience it like it was real.”