An Audi S4 with the Cruise RP-1 sensor pod on top. (Photos by Rafe Needleman/Yahoo Tech)
Despite a lot of limitations, the Cruise RP-1 is about the coolest, most innovative automotive accessory to hit the market in probably forever. It makes your car self-driving.
As long as it’s a new Audi A4 or S4, that is.
And as long as you keep it on the freeway. In the daytime.
And you don’t expect it to change lanes.
That said, there’s nothing else like this $10,000 system, which is a combination of a sensor pod for your car, a computer that mounts in the trunk, and a bunch of levers and gears (“actuators,” in the lingo) that act on the steering wheel, brake, and gas pedals for you.
I got a live demo of the RP-1 at an old airstrip in Alameda, California. The small Cruise team had laid out a course with traffic cones that included long stretches of straight road, some slaloms, and hairpin curves. Cruise engineer Ian Rust showed me the system. He had the easiest demo job in the world: He got into the the driver’s seat of the car (I was in the passenger’s seat), started it up, drove it into the demo lane, and pressed the “Cruise” button on the console. The car then drove itself around the track.
The Cruise control knob.
Don’t fire the chauffeur
My metric for success in a self-driving car demo is this: Does it drive better than I do? The Cruise-equipped car did not. It “hunted” between the cone lane markers, and it was not a comfortable ride. Rust said the wind had been blowing the cones around, and the Cruise system was constantly trying to arbitrate between what its cameras saw and what the pre-programmed GPS system was telling it to expect. He said that by the time the product is available to the public, it will be a better driver.
I expect that he’s right, and he’ll have to be before anyone will buy this product. And, yes, it’s still amazing that an aftermarket kit can drive a real car. It’s just a simple matter of engineering, as they say, to make it better than a human.
Cruise is aptly named, since it’s not a full-on autonomous car accessory. It can drive you down the freeway, keep your car in its lane, and adjust its speed so it doesn’t rear-end another car. If you tell it your destination (via a smartphone app), it will alert you so you can take control of the car before the exit. Likewise, it can’t handle the merge from an on-ramp into traffic. You have to do that, and then engage the system. You can also adjust the default speed.
The Cruise cannot drive in city traffic, or on roads that the system doesn’t know about. By launch time, all of the San Francisco Bay Area should be mapped. Adding new roads is not difficult for Cruise, Rust said. He made the point that while Google’s self-driving car technology can drive anywhere it knows about, it is a massive effort for Google to map out its driving zones at its incredibly high levels of detail. The Google car is not, Rust says, as general-purpose as most people think.
The Cruise sensor pod. Drivers in front of you might think you’re in a police car. That’s their problem.
Google’s technology also relies on very expensive sensors, like a $70,000 Velodyne LIDAR scanner. The Cruise uses two cameras, a radar sensor, and its own GPS antenna.
What you can get now
The Cruise does not have side- or rear-facing sensors, which is one reason it can’t handle lane changes or more complex maneuvers. But with additional sensors and software upgrades, Rust says, the team will constantly be expanding the capabilities of the system.
They’ll also be making it available for other cars eventually. For now, the plan is to sell, and do the installation of, 50 systems at $10,000 each to Bay Area owners of Audi A4s and S4s. The company plans to do these installs in the first quarter of 2015, and after learning from these first customers’ experiences, it will offer more units for sale.
Cruise’s promo video
Cruise technology is totally legal in California and sneaks in under the same regulations that let you use adaptive (speed-changing) cruise control in other states, so once highways elsewhere are mapped into the system, you should be able to use it no matter where you take your car in the United States.
If you don’t have an Audi A4 or S4 from 2012 or later, you have no other real options for serious self-driving technology today, although that will change as more automakers layer in autonomous technology. Today, for example, Mercedes has a limited lane-keeping technology in its S-Class luxury liner, but that car starts at about $95,000, and the feature will drive for only 16 seconds before nagging you to take over. The Cruise technology, theoretically, can navigate your car down the freeway from on-ramp to exit.
The RP-1 is available for preorder today. Cruise will do the installations at its facility in San Francisco starting in 2015.