For $10,000, a start-up can give a car self-driving capabilities

June 30

The Cruise RP-1, which is mounted on the roof, would take control while Audi drivers travel on California highways. (Cruise Automation)

It’s been four years since Google revealed that it was testing a technology that allowed cars to safely and efficiently drive themselves. A slew of carmakers, such as Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo and General Motors, have since followed suit, teasing the public periodically with early demos that portend their own vision of a future, where passengers can play with their mobile devices as robotic vehicles tend to the road.

For Kyle Vogt, chief executive of the San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, the future can’t come soon enough. At the pace it’s going, the market for cars with self-driving capabilities is poised to take shape towards the end of the decade, at the earliest. And with each passing day that manufacturers spend staying the course of carefully determining the optimal moment to roll out a potentially-life saving feature, an average of 93 lives are lost to collisions that could have been avoided.

It’s this maddening sense of urgency that served as the impetus for the Cruise RP-1, an autonomous highway driving system that can be retrofitted on existing cars for as little as $10,000. Vogt and his team of engineers, funded by renowned start-up incubator Y Combinator, are in the midst of putting the system through a myriad of tests so it can be ready for installations during the first half of next year. Preorders are available for the first 50 customers who send a down payment of $1,000.

“Car companies tend to be a lot more cautious in rolling out new technologies because potential problems that can lead to recalls puts their brand at substantial risk,” Vogt explains. “Being a start-up, we operate much leaner and can move faster because we can take a more straightforward approach in protecting ourselves against any liability.”

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(Cruise Automation)

While it all sounds great, there are some caveats. They can only be installed in the 2012 or newer Audi A4 and S4, though the company is working to expand the range of compatible models. And if you happen to be among the majority of those residing outside of California, you’re out of luck. The navigational system relies on the company’s own data-constructed maps, and, for now, is limited mostly to major in-state freeways such as Highway 101 and Interstate 280. Introducing the technology there also makes sense considering that the state is on track to legalize self-driving cars in 2015.

The system also isn’t nearly sophisticated as what’s found in two-seater prototype that Google recently unveiled, Vogt admits. “Google’s goal is to use lasers, sensors and a much more complex array of instruments to not only map out the entire world, but also understand all signs and detect and anticipate pedestrians and every possible object of the car may encounter,” he says. “To give a vehicle this degree of common sense, it costs upwards of $75,000.”

In contrast, the Cruise RP-1 consists of a roof-mounted “sensor pod” equipped with radar, low-grade sensors and cameras that collectively send real-time data to a compact computer stored in the trunk. Push the control button positioned between the driver’s seat and the dash console and the system takes over the steering wheel, gas and brake pedal to ensure that the vehicle stays centered as it travels along the chosen lane, while maintaining a safe buffer between the vehicle in front as well as others that merge in suddenly. What it can’t do, though, is maneuver around traffic, nor even change lanes. Driving in rain, fog or in the dark would still need to be done manually because it won’t work in low visibility conditions (to be fair, Google’s system doesn’t fair too well in such situations either).

“You can think of it more as fancy cruise control,” Vogt says. “Some people don’t even trust cruise control, so I’d like to think of it as what cruise control should have been in the first place.”

So at closer inspection, the add-on doesn’t allow for the kind of care-free autonomous driving that many have come to expect. But by making available a reliable form of driver’s assistance built using lower-cost components than its competitors, the company is taking the approach akin to “not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

“Someday we’d love to eventually get the technology to a level where it can control the entire trip, but what’s important now is that it can save lives.” Vogt says. “And if it can free up an hour or more of your time a day, so that you aren’t worn out from dealing with traffic, that’s something a lot of people will find it worthwhile.”

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