If an autonomous car is really just a rolling computer—where the platform is less important than the AI—then it should be possible to retrofit even a Ford Model T to drive itself. Well, maybe a 2002 Ford Escort.
And it is possible, if you’re a research engineer and not a would-be joyrider on the public roads. Perrone Robotics, in Charlottesville, Va., claims that it takes just half an hour to drop in its Drop-in Autonomy Kit. That’s because the kit uses external actuators to manipulate the steering wheel, brake and throttle:
Another similarly external product should be able to incorporate gear shifting by the time’s it goes to market, probably in February, according to a recent comment posted on Reddit’s robocar blog by Josh Whitley, a lead software engineer at Autonomous Stuff, of Morton, Ill. This kit will accommodate standard sensors—radar, maybe some lidar, GPS, mapping—and it, too, will use external actuators. Here’s a quick view of one turning a steering wheel:
“Acceleration is already working as well and braking for hydraulic systems is nearly complete,” wrote Whitley (under his Reddit handle of “Maximus5684”). “Shifting will probably be the hardest to install but will be the simplest design, provided the vehicle has an inline shift pattern.” He hastened to add that the package was strictly for off-road research and that the user must shoulder any legal liability for unapproved applications.
Hmm. Sounds like Elon Musk’s approach for the Tesla Autopilot.
External actuators were preferred in the early days of self-driving ground vehicles, when even the military, with all its resources, contented itself by grafting control technology onto existing vehicles, probably those that were ready for the scrap heap. The vehicle would set off along pre-programmed paths to serve as gunnery targets and get blasted to pieces, and then engineers would pick through the wreckage in hopes of recovering and re-using some of the grafted-on gadgetry.
Will the junkyard be the fate of the world’s existing fleet of cars when self-driving models finally become street-legal? Or will the aftermarket for retrofitting save their metallic skins, giving them renewed life as robots?
It all depends on whether governments end up approving the AI separately from the platform on which it rides.
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.