RE: The “DIY Self-Driving Car.”

According to a semi-recent article from the consulting firm IHS Markit, the average length of car ownership in the United States for new cars and light trucks is right around six-and-a-half years, while the average age of all vehicles on the nation’s highways sits at around eleven-and-a-half years.  On its own, this might not seem like an important piece of information unless –– of course –– you’re an automotive manufacturer hoping to keep the conveyor belt of new car sales in constant motion.  But this is an incredibly important piece of information to keep in mind as advances in self-driving car technology make rapid improvements.  In fact, let’s use this information as the springboard for a quick hypothetical question:

What if it were less expensive to retrofit an already existing/already purchased car with autonomous technology, rather than buying one that’s brand new and with built in self-driving capabilities?

In other words: what if you could just go out and purchase an aftermarket DIY self-driving car kit that you (or, more likely, a certified mechanic) bolted on to a car you currently own?

Well….  You can.

Kinda’ sorta.

Though the technology is still in its infancy (because all self-driving technology is in its infancy), several companies have tossed their hats into the DIY autonomous vehicle ring, and are making “bolt on” hardware and downloadable software available at incredibly reasonable prices.  At the time this post is being written (May of 2017) the following companies/start-ups are offering –– or are working on –– some form of aftermarket autonomous technology, designed to be incorporated into cars that would normally require human guidance, steering, and attention at all times:

AutonomouStuff

There’s nothing intuitive about the AutonomouStuff website, though a deep dive into the About page and, especially, their “Products” page reveals that the company is selling both aftermarket parts and hardware for building, testing, and developing autonomous vehicles.  Think of these guys as kind of a “Radio Shack for DIY self-driving car enthusiasts,” with the added benefit of white papers, research, and software downloads.  Again, the site’s a  bit confusing, though here would be a good place to start.

comma.ai

George Hotz made his first big splash in the media as a teenage tech phenom, gaining notice for a set of room scanning robots he designed, built, and entered into the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair competition (and becoming a finalist in the competition).  Later, he became know as “that guy” who hacked his way into Apple’s iPhone and Sony’s PS3 gaming platform (and then end up being sued by Sony).

A jawdroppingly-intelligent guy, with little need or respect for the rules and expectations of society, Mr. Hotz stunned the world technology back in 2016, when he announced his comma.ai self-driving platform –– a “DIY semi-autonomous car kit” that he would make available to the public for $999.  Unfortunately, the rules and expectations of society caught up with George in the form of a letter from the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), asking that the Comma One platform (the car kit being offered by comma.ai) undergo rigorous safety testing before being offered to the public for sale.

Again, rules and regulations aren’t really George Hotz’s primary concern, and so –– rather than submitting to the government’s requests –– the Comma One software is now being given away for free (now as openpilot), with the hardware available as an open source list of parts and schematic boards.

drive.ai

Created by a group of ex-Stanford researchers, drive.ai is a Silicon Valley startup using machine learning to teach self-driving cars how they should interact with passengers and pedestrians.  At the moment (May of 2017), there doesn’t appear to be any specific product offering from the firm.

Neodriven

Don’t want to deal with parts, schematics, and a soldering iron?  The folks over at Neodriven have taken the open sources parts lists and schematic boards from comma.ai and are building semi-autonomous hardware kits based up the plans.  Available for purchase for the either $999 or one bitcoin.

Perrone Robotics

The development  team behind Perrone Robotics has had –– relatively speaking –– a long history with autonomous vehicles, and was an early participant in the DARPA challenge, entering their first vehicle into the government sponsored rally back in 2005.  They currently offer a software product, MAX, which can be configured for passenger cars and smaller robotic vehicles and devices (i.e.: delivery bots, golf carts, warehouse inventory transport, etc…).  One especially interesting aspect of Perrone Robotics and their management team is they’ve recently brought Atari-founder Nolan Bushnell onboard as an advisor.

PolySync

The Oregon-based company, PolySync, offers the basic hardware and software for building and testing a self-driving “by-wire technology system,” designed for use on 2014 (and later model) Kia Souls.  The basic PolySync hardware set-up can be purchased directly from the company for less than $1000, with full instructions on installation and software available via GitHub.

Obviously, when looking through the list of companies above, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the hardware kits and software available for building a DIY autonomous vehicle are in their development and/or experimental stage, with little commercial release.  This makes sense, of course, because self-driving cars are in their earliest stages of development.  Do realize, though, that autonomous vehicle technology is an exponential technology: the early advances start off slow and then –– BOOM! –– it’s like a rocket taking off.

Now, taking a moment to relate back somewhat to the purpose of this website, what legal issues might be associated with a self-driving car car assembled at home or using some aftermarket kit?  Let’s say you were to purchase an autonomous car kit of some sort, have it professionally installed by a certified mechanic onto a car you already own, and then –– some time after the installation –– the car gets into an accident?

Where might the responsibility lie?

Would there be some onus of responsibility on the mechanic/installer, even if that person were certified is some way with the technology?  And what about the original manufacturer of the LIDAR and camera vision systems?  Or what about the software that navigates the car?

These questions need to be asked now –– not with any real answer in mind –– but with the knowledge that these questions will be asked over and over during the course of the next few years as more autonomous vehicles make their ways onto the roads and highways.   And the overaching theme of responsibility will come up continuosly when discussing semi-autonomous vehicles, fully autonomous cars, and the various forms of aftermarket autonomy products.

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