The world's leading automotive firms have set themselves a deadline for 2020 for launching their first fully-autonomous cars, but aware of drivers' impatience and the amount of buzz that talk of self-driving cars is generating, a Californian startup company called Cruise
is looking to offer a do-it-yourself stopgap.
The system can be fitted to an existing car and will go on sale in 2015. Photo:AFP
Called Cruise PR1, it can be retro-fitted to an existing car and will offer what the company confidently calls "the first highway autopilot for your car."
The kit, which the company will install at its facility in San Francisco, will cost $10,000 and uses a combination of actuators for the steering and pedals and machine vision technology -- i.e., cameras mounted on the roof -- to keep a car in lane and a safe distance from other road users once the ‘Cruise' button is depressed.
And although it is potentially compatible with any car, Cruise is initially focusing its attention on Audis -- the A4 and A5 to be precise.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new gadget has been getting a lot of buzz but car makers are being a little more cautious.
For example, Audi recommends against fitting anything to one of its cars that will interfere with its performance or handling or might in any way void its warranty or reliability.
Then there's the fact that many of the benefits the Cruise PR1 system offers have been standard or cost options on a host of premium European cars for quite some time.
Mercedes owners in particular will be scratching their heads trying to understand what the fuss is all about. The Distronic Plus system has been offered on the E Class and S Class since 2013 and is now available to C-Class, CLA-Class and CLS owners too.
Like the Cruise system, Distronic Plus automatically monitors a car's position within a lane, keeps a safe distance from the car ahead and the one behind and can even bring a car to an emergency stop in such a way that the risk of the vehicle behind crashing into yours is mitigated.
Other Mercedes features include junction assist, where the car helps to look for an opening in traffic and blind spot assist where the car keeps track of vehicles and other road users near the car but out of the driver's sight.
But unlike the Cruise system, the latest Mercedes can also pretty much park themselves too.
However, not everyone owns a Mercedes and not everyone has to contend with California's notorious traffic jams and congestion.
And in this area, Cruise might be able to offer something that other companies can't. The state is one of the most forward-thinking when it comes to the future of self-driving cars and has already put legislation in place that will allow them to use the road network. That means that as long as the driver is registered, he or she really could take their hands off the wheel when the car hits the highway.
In Europe however, the law is still very clear: the driver must have a least one hand on the wheel and therefore remain in control of the vehicle at all times. And that's why all premium European cars have a sensor installed in the steering wheel or column that can sense the pull or pressure of a hand to ensure that all of the driver safety and assistance aids aren't the only thing controlling the car.