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A Generation of ‘Home-Made’ Autonomous Vehicles Hit the Road

November 29, 2017 By Steve Senne in

A generation of hobbyists is emerging to build their own home-made autonomous vehicles, according to a report published in the MIT Technology Review.

In Nebraska college student Brevan Jorgenson spent about $700 to outfit his Honda Civic to run on its own, while Kiki Jewell attempted to do the same thing to her Chevy Bolt in the San Francisco Bay area, the report notes.

Both hobbyists had help from George Hotz, founder of Comma.ai – a startup that was working on a $999 device dubbed Neo that would have upgraded certain vehicles to be self-driving. Hotz released the plans for the Neo on the Internet after receiving a letter from the National Highway Safety Administration asking questions about the device’s functionality.

Jorgenson used Hotz’s plans and $700 in parts to modify his 2016 Honda Civic. The home-made autonomous vehicle is controlled by a OnePlus 3 smartphone and Comma’s Openpilot Software.

As an alternative to the approach that Hotz used, Los Angeles startup Neodriven offers a pre-built Neo device that works with Comma’s Openpilot and costs $1,495, the author of the MIT article wrote. In addition, online education platform Udacity released code used in its autonomous car research program, the author noted.

Private citizens have significant latitude in how they outfit their home-made autonomous vehicles but still must comply with state rules requiring responsible driving, the article noted. The author noted that Openpilot reminds drivers to touch the wheel every five minutes and asks for help if it is having trouble disciphering a situation.

The article deals with an important issue only superficially, however. Car manufacturers, software companies and others in the broad automotive food chain are spending hundreds of millions of dollars developing AVs. Test cars have sophisticated cutting edge hardware and software and undergo years of testing on closed tracks and under very controlled circumstances and are only very slowly being authorized to use public roads. For instance, LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is being customized as a way to survey the area around vehicles to detect the proximity of objects.