Driverless cars are synonymous with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) (NASDAQ: GOOGL ) and a handful of automakers like Mercedes-Benz and GM (NYSE: GM ) . But that might be about to change. Cruise Automation, a start-up based in San Francisco, is developing a kit that will allow drivers to retrofit their cars with driverless technology. The company's first-generation Cruise RP1 will cost just $10,000 -- a fraction of the six-digit price tag most competitors are expected to fetch. The obvious question is: Will the concept revolutionize the auto industry?
Kyle Vogt, the CEO of Cruise, recently shared his thoughts on the subject with me. Vogt reveals Cruise RP1 will first work with Audi's A4 and S4 only, before expanding to other makes in the near future. "We designed the system to be compatible with any car with a steering wheel, gas pedal, and brake pedal," he says. "But we had to choose one to start with, since there's some customization involved and we're a small company with limited resources."
Upon launch, Cruise RP1 sales will be limited to California in a batch of 50 units. The state will begin issuing driverless car licenses in September, and is on the forefront of legislation designed to eliminate the legal ambiguity that surrounds the technology.
While this is a clear advantage for Cruise, Vogt says his company is focusing on California for logistical reasons, before moving to other markets. He explains:
This kind of technology needs to be extremely safe. We're doing a limited roll-out by limiting the areas in which the system will operate until we've collected hundreds of passes of each stretch of highway. We're based in San Francisco so we have enough data to unlock certain stretches of highway in the Bay area, but we haven't collected enough data for other areas yet.
There's no denying driverless cars can transform the auto industry. The potential benefits range from accident reduction to improved productivity, assuming drivers will have more free time on the road. Morgan Stanley, for one, estimates 100% adoption in the U.S. may come within a few decades. That scenario could save Americans at least $1 trillion annually, and global savings may be five times that, according to the company.
As with all paradigm shifts, though, adoption will likely come in steps. Morgan Stanley outlines four phases, the culmination of which will result in universal usage throughout the country. The U.S. is currently in Phase 1, it says, while Phase 2 and Phase 3 will consist of a transition from existing to driverless tech in cutting-edge areas like California within the next decade. Nissan and GM are just a couple of the automakers who share this sentiment -- both plan to release a version of the technology by 2020.
Given that some experts believe new driverless cars will cost between $75,000 and $100,000, Cruise's $10,000 price point could open the market to value-focused consumers. Even the company's slogan, "Join the Driverless Revolution," seems to imply Cruise gives the everyman a chance to do just that.
The bottom line
As Forbes reports, Vogt calls the company his "true calling," adding, "Americans are complacent that 33,000 people die every year in car accident[s].... We feel like there's this race against the clock." Cruise's mission is a noble one, and if successful, it may ultimately hasten the adoption of driverless cars.
Of course, plenty of questions remain. Will drivers want to shell out $10,000 to retrofit a car that isn't specifically designed for the technology? Will the state and federal legal environment move quickly enough? And perhaps most importantly, will Americans feel comfortable enough to take their hands off the steering wheel?
The answers will be revealed in time. But for my money, I'm optimistic. Everything from the personal computer to tablets faced criticism before they were released, and driverless cars may be more revolutionary than both. Thanks to Cruise, the U.S. may be even closer to a future where roadway safety and driver productivity are markedly improved.
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