This Accessory Lets Your Car Drive Itself
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.