The path to quicker lap times ultimately involves data. From inside the car, it typically involves a display with predictive lap timing and how quickly a driver is going in relation to his fastest lap. Post session, it most often involves taking a faster driver’s lap data and laying it over the slower lap to show where the potential gains are.
Those methods work, but there is often a not-insignificant learning curve to the software used to manipulate the data. Inside the car, the predictive timing typically compares laps to the fast lap within that session.
A company called APEX approaches the problem from a different perspective. Rather than basing in-car feedback on a driver, the APEX Pro bases it on machine-learning the capabilities of the car. In addition, rather than displaying the feedback digitally, it shows it in a clever array of red and green lights. Post session, the data can be downloaded via Bluetooth to an iOS device, such as an iPhone or iPad. There is an app for Androids, too.
“APEX Pro essentially uses inertial sensors only and GPS all internal to the device to build a model of your vehicle’s capabilities while you drive,” said APEX marketing director Andrew Rains. “It doesn’t use a predisposed baseline for an individual track or an individual car. It simply just learns based on the accelerations that it’s seeing, what your car’s capabilities are, and it extrapolates that to a nine-axis friction circle. It starts to learn where the limits of grip are.”
Nine axes form something of a spherical friction circle, so the machine can interpret track details like banks, crests and elevation change. APEX Pro takes raw data and uses it to calculate a car’s capabilities. For example, if you’re fairly confident in one corner and right at the limit, APEX Pro can use that data to show you where you can drive your car faster in corners where you might not be as confident, nor as close to the limit.
“I guess the best way to think about it without overthinking it is it takes thousands and thousands and thousands of measurements, and because of the vast intake of data and how we filter and modify that data, it’s able to understand certainly what your peaks are,” Rains said. “And if you have showed the car the oversteer/understeer balance, then it will make assumptions about how that’s applied across the range of speeds you’re achieving and apply that to the software.”
The device can be moved easily from a horsepower car to momentum car because it learns a car’s capabilities each session within two laps of driving.
Powered by a lithium ion battery, the APEX Pro uses current technology, such as a 10-hertz GPS, the nine-axis accelerometer, microprocessor, a 12-bit precision accelerometer and a 16-bit gyro to detect rotation. The majority of the hardware is embedded in the circuit board of the device, which is about the size of a Hot Wheels car.
APEX’s engineer Austin Gurley, who has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Auburn University, was on the Formula SAE team when he was seeking a simple method to show drivers their current versus potential performance. Gurley partnered with Rains, who used his Pirelli World Challenge racing team as a test bed for the APEX Pro.
Simply put, red LEDs indicate the peak potential that the device thinks the car can reach at that moment. Green lights represent your performance. The more green lights you see, the closer you are to the car’s limits. The more red lights you see, the faster you could be going. The display is designed to be recognizable in a driver’s peripheral vision.
“You mount it where it’s right underneath the direct line of your sight because as humans the lower third of our peripherals are the most active, the most responsive to motion and color,” Rains said.
In some cases, the driver can use the input from the lights immediately. In other cases, he might have to apply what he learned the next lap.
The data displays on the phone as a track map, with the laps numbered and your performance marked as a percentage of the car’s capabilities in a given lap. The light bar also is displayed as it was in the car, and it corresponds with the color shown on the track map. You can tap anywhere on the map to see your performance percentage, how much of the car’s capabilities you’re actually using. You can either share your data with others via Air Drop, or use “Crew View” to watch your friends while they are on track.
The system does more than we have room to explain here, but because people are so accustomed to their phones, because they use them every day, the software seems simple and feels familiar.
“Data with modern technology and software, data should do more for you and that means it should be more fun,” Rains said. “It should be more engaging, especially for people who don’t have the time or willingness to commit a lot of time and effort to data. They can now use our tool and use APEX because it’s fun, it’s engaging, and it’s all in your smart phone.”