First Aftermarket Autonomous Cars Hit the Road in California

Cruise Automation’s modified Audis join Google’s experimental self-driving cars and others

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First Aftermarket Autonomous Cars Hit the Road in California
Photo: Cruise Automation

The number of self-driving cars on California’s public roads has nearly doubled in the last month. As of mid-June, 77 vehicles from eight manufacturers have been issued autonomous testing permits by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). That’s up from 48 in May, and includes the first two vehicles fitted with self-driving technology that its maker claims “can be installed on almost any car.”

Cruise Automation is a Silicon Valley start-up developing a US $10,000 system called the RP-1 Highway Autopilot. As the name suggests, the RP-1 is designed to take over driving on freeways, keeping the car within lanes, and sensing and avoiding other vehicles. Its most obvious component is a pod mounted above the windshield, containing millimeter-wave radar, stereo video cameras, GPS and inertial sensors—although not the expensive laser-ranging lidar systems favored by Google.

Inside the vehicle, actuators control the steering, gas and brakes, while the brains of the whole thing are a computer housed in the trunk. To activate the RP-1, a human driver simply maneuvers into a lane on the highway and pushes a button on the dashboard. Although Cruise only received its DMV permits for two cars in June, the company’s job ads say that it has already “logged thousands of autonomous miles on California highways.”

An aftermarket robot chauffeur could accelerate the arrival of self-driving vehicles. Although regulations covering autonomous technology for public use have yet to be finalized in California (or elsewhere), not having to crash test or get an entire vehicle approved is bound to save time.

And even at $10,000, fitting an RP-1 will probably work out cheaper at first than buying a new production car with the technology built in. (Tesla is promising a similar highway autopilot for its $70,000 Model S sedan this summer.) Cruise is doing its best to keep the price down further, using commodity hardware, low-cost sensors and affordable but high-powered graphics processing units (GPUs) to process images of the road ahead.

But like other companies working on autonomous vehicles, Cruise is finding that the self-driving devil is in the details. An advertisement for computer vision engineers note that the company is working on “making our vision systems more robust to changes in lighting conditions or shadows” and developing “new ways to use image features or tracking to improve mapping and localization.”

Re/code reported last year that Cruise intended to start installing its first 50 Highway Autopilots, for late-model Audi A4 and S4s, in “early 2015.” Cruise would not comment on this story, or say when the first installations would actually begin. There is also no word on when the RP-1 might be available for other models or makes of car.

Ultimately, Cruise would like to offer a kit that could also handle city streets, where we do most of our driving. But to do that, it needs its brace of experimental cars to provide far more real-world experience. “Over time, we’ll use the data we collect to make smarter, more automated products,” says Cruise’s website.

The start-up has some catching up to do. Google now has 48 self-driving vehicles on the road in California that have driven about three million kilometers in total. Cruise had better put its robotic foot on the gas or it risks being left in the slow lane.

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