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Intelligent Machines

This Box Could Make Your Car Autonomous for Just $1,000

Comma.ai’s system will add Autopilot-like abilities to many standard vehicles.

Off-the-shelf autonomy systems are likely to be an important route to market for self-driving vehicle technology. But, somewhat surprisingly, the first may be available by the end of the year.

Comma.ai, the automotive startup founded by George Hotz, first announced that it was working on a bolt-on autonomy system earlier this year. Now the company is planning to launch a system that can be added to regular cars by the end of the year, according to TechCrunch. When it goes on sale, the Comma One will cost $999, though users will also have to pay a $24 monthly subscription for software.

The company doesn’t claim that the unit will turn a car into a fully autonomous vehicle. Instead, it will provide a vehicle with the ability to automatically accelerate, brake, and change lanes on the highway.

The device, shrouded in brilliant green plastic, adds only camera sensors to the car. For more data about what’s happening on the road, the Comma One uses radar systems, currently found on higher-end cars to aid intelligent cruise control systems. As a result, the new product will initially be compatible with only a handful of models.

As for how well it works? “It’s about on par with Tesla Autopilot,” Hotz told TechCrunch.

In contrast to many others involved with self-driving projects, the company is clearly focused on building a commercial product as soon as possible—and in that sense, at least, its sensibilities are more closely aligned with those of Tesla. Indeed, it will probably be quicker to market than others who plan to offer off-the-shelf autonomy packages—among them Delphi, Mobileye, and Oxbotica.

Clearly, Hotz doesn’t think much of some of his competition. “If you’re looking to Mobileye to build the software of the future—don’t,” he said.

Safety worries will no doubt be difficult for Comma.ai to avoid. Concerns over the safety of Tesla’s Autopilot system continue to linger following a fatal crash earlier this year, though the automaker did announce this week that it will update the system’s software to make better use of radar data and provide “a threefold improvement in safety.”

And Hotz’s project has already received criticism from Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “We think it is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles,” he wrote in a blog post.

We don’t have long to wait until we find out whether that view is accurate, or simply fighting talk.

(Read more: TechCrunch, Wall Street Journal, “Plug-and-Play Autonomy Could Soon Turn Your Car into a Self-Driving Robot”)

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