Automotive tuners and aftermarket companies offer many ways of adding performance, luxury and personalization to cars and trucks. Each year, the SEMA Show highlights the latest and loudest. Now there's a start-up advertising an aftermarket kit designed to tune your car into a self-driving chauffeur … kind of. Cruise's Audi automation kit lets the car take over most of the driving but still requires a human driver at the ready.
Cruise was founded in San Francisco last November by Kyle Vogt, a tech entrepreneur who also had a hand in founding Justin.tv, Socialcam and Twitch. Cruise has more than half a dozen employees – primarily engineers with an MIT background – working to perfect an "advanced driver assistance system" it calls RP-1.
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Not to be confused with the RP1 roadster, which was also revealed recently, the Cruise RP-1 is an autonomous upgrade kit that promises to provide a stepping stone to an autonomous driving future. The most obvious part of the kit is the roof-mounted sensor pod outfitted with cameras, radar and other hardware. Like manufacturer-installed sensor systems, the sensor pod gives the RP-1 the ability to monitor surrounding vehicles, road markings and other objects, essentially serving as a more advanced set of eyes.
From there, the RP-1 system processes information through its dedicated, trunk-mounted computer and, when necessary, makes driving adjustments via braking, acceleration and steering systems. It's designed to take over the bulk of the driving work the minute the driver pushes a simple "on" button.
Those looking forward to autonomous vehicles shouldn't get too excited, and those unsure about the idea of self-driving autos shouldn't get up in arms just yet. Cruise has designed the package specifically for the Audi A4/S4 (2012 or newer). That's it. The company plans to modify the system for additional vehicles in the future, but for now it's focused on just the A4 and S4.
When we first read over Cruise's materials, its US$10,000 system didn't sound much different from Audi's own $2,800 Driver Assist package. That package includes adaptive cruise control with stop & go, pre sense plus and active lane assist, a combination that can follow the flow of traffic, bring the vehicle to a stop, and assist in preventing collisions and lane swerves, much like the RP-1. However, Cruise tells us that its system is designed to shift more responsibility from driver to vehicle, letting the driver take his hands completely off the steering wheel.
"The current packages that are offered by major automotive manufacturers are actually fairly new and don't necessarily handle all the functions that the RP-1 will," explains Daniel Kan, Cruise's head of operations. "For example, the Mercedes lane keeping will do slight corrections via the brakes on either side of the car, instead of fully taking over the steering for you. If you remove your hands from the wheel for more than a few seconds, it starts beeping at you and will eventually slow down.
Our product is designed to take over all the stressful parts of driving on the highway. You still need to be paying attention, but it will take complete control of the vehicle with one fully integrated system."
A Cruise-equipped car will still require the driver to intervene in certain situations, switch lanes when desired, and perform the turn-by-turn navigation. While on an approved highway in a single lane, however, he or she will be able to leave the steering, accelerating and braking up to the car.
The RP-1 may prove to be more interesting as an aftermarket automation concept than as an actual product. The RP-1 adds about 30 percent to the base price of the A4. That rather steep price gets the owner a kit that's being advertised with terms like "autopilot" and "driverless" but is really a semi-autonomous upgrade that appears only a bit more advanced than the systems offered directly by automakers, systems that are more cleanly integrated.
Cruise also has some work left to do before its planned 2015 launch. While it put the RP-1 up for limited preorder last week, it is still collecting mapping data and testing the autopilot system. The RP-1 currently only works on select California highways, with expansion onto other highways planned for the future. Varying state regulations are another major obstacle that could hamper the system's availability.
Cruise plans to begin installations of the $10,000 RP-1 package at its San Francisco headquarters beginning in early 2015. We'll wait and see if it's able to stick to that timeframe.
A company promo video follows.