Courtesy of Cruise Automation

Cruise Automation’s RP-1 conversion system is now being tested on California highways.

Google is building its fully driverless car from the ground up—no steering wheel, no brakes, so far not even a name. Meanwhile traditional car companies prefer (at least publicly) to make incremental advances toward autonomy, adding features like collision warning or lane control to new models. These fundamentally divergent approaches do share one thing in common from the perspective of future consumers: they require replacing the car you already own.

That’s where the RP-1 from start-up Cruise Automation comes in. For $10,000, an RP-1 installation converts your crummy old conventional car into a lovely futuristic driverless one. That blanket offer comes with some limitations we’ll get to below, but Cruise seems like a viable entrant to the autonomous vehicle game; it just received road-testing permit from the California DMV, placing it alongside the likes of Google, Mercedes, Tesla, and other major players in the field.

The RP-1 system consists of a “sensor pod” equipped with cameras and radar and mounted on a car’s roof, a simple driver’s side control that engages and disengages the driverless system, and an algorithm-packed computer docked in the trunk, according to the company’s website. Its precautionary features include “built-in redundant systems” and driver takeover alerts, with additional third-party safety testing also in the works.

Courtesy of Cruise Automation

(Cruise declined to confirm several details of its existing system to CityLab via email, or to comment on its future plans.)

Founder Kyle Vogt seemingly has the chops to compete in the competitive driverless space. We learn from a great February profile in Inc that Vogt studied electrical engineering at MIT (shocker) and that he took part in the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge (alongside so many other big names in the driverless field, including Google’s Chris Urmson). Here’s more:

Vogt has spent much of his life thinking about robots. When he was 13, he built a 200-pound BattleBot for the bygone robot-combat competition--which became a Comedy Central show--and road-tripped with his dad to enter two BattleBot events. ("My bot was absolutely destroyed both times," Vogt says with a shrug.) Around that time, he built a miniature dune buggy. It used a webcam to read lane markings to autonomously navigate a predetermined route. He entered this device in his school's science fair, and won in a landslide.

Now for those limits. At the moment, the RP-1 system can only be installed on “any 2012 or newer Audi A4 or S4,” and it’s restricted only to daytime highway driving in California—though in time the company surely hopes to expand to other cars and city roads.

As with all driverless cars, the timeline is also unclear. Cruise’s website says the first (sold out) wave of RP-1 preorders is scheduled to ship in 2015, but California has yet to release its regulations for the public operation of autonomous vehicles, so for now the only RP-1 cars allowed on the road are those being tested by the company. And drivers would still need to abide local laws: that means no texting behind the wheel even while your Audi does all the work.

Obviously it’s too early to take a city perspective on a car that can’t actually drive in cities. But the RP-1 does raise the big question on the minds of driverless experts: Will people own these cars or share them? If they own them (or, in this case, convert the car they own), they might be inclined to live father out of the metro core, knowing the commute won’t be as stressful as it once was. But if they prefer to share them, and do all their travel through a fleet of robotaxis, they might be more inclined to move back to the city and give up their Audis for good.

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