Model cars and track racing are the bread and butter of Hot Wheels, but they might look a little long in the tooth compared to flashy console games like Gran Turismo and Need for Speed. With the new Hot Wheels AI set, toy autos get a bit of a boost — not just in speed, but in intelligence. Now you can race against a computer in the real world, right there on your living room rug.Each Hot Wheels AI set comes with two cars, 20 pieces of track and two controllers. The 1/32 scale models look like normal toy cars, with snazzy shells not based on any existing real world vehicle — the blue design is called “Fast Fish” and the orange one is “Spin King.” Flip them over and underneath you’ll find two infrared sensors similar to the ones on a Roomba. They allow the computer inside to “read” the gradient pattern on the vinyl track, so it knows exactly where the car is and can adjust the steering to stay on course even in the middle of a heated race.
The track pieces can be arranged in over 40 layouts, allowing you to add turns and straightaways to your hearts’ content. That’s not the only thing about Hot Wheels AI that can be customized — the shells can be swapped out for new designs, and the wheel rims are interchangeable as well (gold-plated and spinning options not yet available).
Once you’ve got everything to your liking, it’s time to race. There’s no app or anything like that — Hot Wheels AI comes with special controllers that connect at 2.4GHz to each car. They have a very video game flair to them: The shape resembles an Xbox gamepad, and the controls include a directional joystick on the left with two shoulder buttons up top. But that’s where the similarities end. The triggers on the back are designed more like those you’d find on a slot car control, and the front has an array of colorful buttons for choosing game modes.
There’s an autodrive mode where the cars zip around the track on their own. But let’s face it: You want to be the one doing the driving. There’s a freeplay mode that puts you in full control and lets you take it anywhere, including off track. On the track you might want to try the practice mode. That’s just a basic run which lets you try for your fastest time while you get used to the controls. Once you’re done practicing, though, it’s time to race against another player or an AI in championship mode. That lets you set up a race with a certain number of laps, like 10. The computer will then track the relative position of the cars, with the controller speakers announcing the standings on each lap and eventually calling a winner.
Both the practice and championship settings allow you to select from three skill levels: Beginner, Advanced and Expert. The first difference is how much assistance you get from the computer — beginners just need to hit the gas, and the system will do the work of keeping your car on the road. Expert puts you almost in full control of acceleration and steering. The other big difference in skill level is how fast you’re able to go. Beginner putts along at a steady but unexciting pace, while expert takes advantage of the cars’ ability to travel up to 5.6mph, the scaled down equivalent of 180mph.
Besides the controller, another distinctly video game twist to Hot Wheels AI is the ability to deploy hazards against your opponent during a championship race. These road mishaps are activated with the touch of a button, but there’s no actual oil stick that appears on the track — the affected car will skid or stall out on its own, with the speaker on the controller announcing the cause of the problem. Hot Wheels AI might be aimed at ages “8+,” but it really does reach across age groups. The controllers can be handed off to younger kids, or older adults with fond memories of slot cars and plastic tracks. It’s the same classic combination of speed and style that Hot Wheels is known for — but now it’s got some brains on the inside. The basic set goes on sale this October for a sweet $100.