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Fitting Old Cars With New Robotech

When self-driving cars become street legal, a world full of old cars will become ripe for retrofitting

2 min read
Fitting Old Cars With New Robotech
Image: Autonomous Stuff

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.

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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