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Student Creates Modified Self-Driving Car Using Comma.ai's Free Platform

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【Summary】To prove his modified autonomous car is reliable enough for public roads, he took his grandmother, who represents one of the largest demographics to benefit from autonomous technology, for a ride inside the DIY car of the future.

Original Michael Cheng    Feb 28, 2017 10:00 AM PT
Student Creates Modified Self-Driving Car Using Comma.ai's Free Platform

Due to complexities surrounding driverless cars, the development and production of autonomous vehicles should be left to automakers with decades of experience in the field – or should they? Last year, San Francisco startup Comma.ai shook up the industry with plans to offer equipment for DIY self-driving enthusiasts. For $999, the device is designed to turn compatible vehicles into driverless vessels.

Unfortunately, founder George Hotz cancelled the product after intense scrutiny from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Not to be outdone by regulators, Hotz published the startup's designs and software, allowing people to create their own self-driving car.

This is exactly what Jorgen Brevenson, a senior at the University of Nebraska, did with his Honda Civic. To prove his modified autonomous car is reliable enough for public roads, he took his grandmother, who represents one of the largest demographics to benefit from autonomous technology, for a ride inside the DIY car of the future.

Jorgenson's Self-driving Journey

Jorgenson's journey to self-driving freedom is unique and inspiring. The student was closely following Hotz's company and started building the platform the moment the Comma.ai founder dumped the plans online. The driverless car enthusiast ordered the parts he needed, as instructed by the company. Since Jorgenson already owned one of the compatible vehicles that works with the device (a 2016 Honda Civic), his investment didn't burn a deep hole in his wallet.

After getting a case printed online and hours of soldering, he ended up with a Neo, which combines OnePlus 3 mobile phone, Comma.ai's Openpilot software (free) and a customized circuit board. He first deployed the device on a cold January evening on an open interstate, by himself. The system worked flawlessly during the initial attempt. Jorgenson then tested the DIY platform with this grandmother in the vehicle. To his surprise, she wasn't terrified during the ride.

"It was dark on the interstate, and I tested it by myself because I figured if anything went wrong I didn't want anybody else in the car," said Jorgenson. "It worked phenomenally."                       

Compliance Hurdles

Just to be clear, Jorgenson's modified driverless car is completely legal. According to Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, DIY hobbyists interested in modifying their car do not need to worry about overstepping automotive regulators. Transportation authorities mostly govern car manufacturers and other businesses selling vehicles. Private car owners are offered flexibility for modifications. With that being said, people intending to use customized driverless platforms will need to adhere to local laws surrounding the use of self-driving cars on public roads.

Interestingly, Comma.ai's Openpilot software is equipped with features to help people comply with state regulations. For example, notifications are activated if the driver fails to touch the steering wheel every five minutes (this ensures the driver is always physically and mindfully present or engaged). Moreover, if the system is having a hard time "seeing" its environment or making safe decisions, it will advise the driver to change to manual control – also known as a disengagement in the driverless sector.

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