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How $10,000 Can Score You a Self-Driving Car (Sort Of)

San Francisco-based Cruise Automation has created a new gadget that gives any car self-driving capabilities.
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It looks like consumers will be able to get their hands on self-driving cars by early 2015, and they’re coming from an unlikely place: your garage. San Francisco-based startup Cruise Automation (or just “Cruise” for short) has created an aftermarket add on to existing vehicles that gives them some of the features you might expect from an autonomous vehicle.

Designed specifically with highway driving in mind, the system is activated when you press a “Cruise” button inside your car. Once engaged, Cruise helps your vehicle stay in its lane, keep up with traffic, and brake when it’s getting too close to another vehicle. It’s not quite a self-driving solution, you’ll still have to handle lane changes and directions yourself, but it gives a whole new definition to the term “cruise control.”

The company describes the technology as an advanced driver assistance system (ADAS). Unlike the autonomous solutions in development by companies like Google, the system’s going to handle a lot of the heavy lifting while you’re on the highway, but you’ve still got to be ready to take over if need be. You can’t just press a button and be whisked off from point A to point B.

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Cruise works with the help of three separate components: a sensor pod, computer and actuators. The sensor pod is mounted near the windshield on the roof of your vehicle and uses cameras, sensors and radar to determine what’s going on around your vehicle.  Small actuators are hidden in the driver side footwell to control your braking, acceleration and steering. A small computer in the back of your car puts it all together.

It takes about a day to install and test the system at Cruise’s facility in San Francisco. Right now, Cruise is compatible only with Audi A4 or S4 vehicles 2012 or newer (Google’s self-driving prototypes are all Lexus vehicles). The company says that while it started with the Audi vehicles, the system is relatively easy to switch into other cars and it plans to make it accessible for other makes and models soon.

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For now, initial sales are limited to just 50 people. Drivers will also only be able to use the system in California for the time being -- the only state the team has been able to fully map.

And then there’s the price. Adding a Cruise system to your car will run you $10,000. It’s a steep price to pay for a more relaxing highway journey, but a far cry from the $70,000 the digital arrays on top of Google’s fully autonomous prototypes are valued at. There’s also the matter of bragging rights to be the first one of the block with a self-driving car.

Those, of course, are priceless.

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