There's going to be a new dividing line among car owners within the next few years between those who can afford to buy sure-to-be-expensive, mostly-autonomous vehicles and those who continue to drive less costly manual options.
Nima Ashtari wants to help that second group enjoy the benefits of self-driving cars, too. X-Matik Inc., his Toronto-based company, this month is launching a test version of its first commercial product – LaneCruise, an add-on kit that promises to turn virtually any existing car into a partly autonomous vehicle for less than $3,000.
"It's pretty remarkable when you see people's reaction to it," he says. "It's usually one of amazement and surprise that you can do something like this with so little money and no need for a new car."
LaneCruise is made up of a number of components that take about an hour to install, Ashtari says. The key part is an LCD interface that houses a forward-looking camera, which attaches to a car's rear-view mirror.
The camera sees where the vehicle is going and relays the information to a processing unit underneath the driver's seat.
Actuators, attached to the steering wheel and pedals, control the vehicle and allow the driver to cruise hands- and foot-free, similar to existing systems, such as Tesla's Autopilot and Nissan's ProPilot.
LaneCruise is much like an advanced form of cruise control, since it helps a vehicle maintain a set distance and speed behind another car. The driver, however, has to continue paying attention to the road.
The system is also capable of automatically switching lanes, Ashtari says, but the driver needs to activate the lane-change indicator, which is part of the X-Matik kit, to do so.
The function won't be included initially in the beta kit, which is being limited to 200 units to buyers in Ontario. The company wants to gather further data from test users to see if additional cameras need to be installed around the vehicle before a planned full launch next year.
The test program is coinciding with X-Matik's appearance on Dragon's Den on Nov. 16, in which Ashtari – a former mechanical engineer for Tesla and Honda – managed to secure $350,000 in funding.
The company has also attracted a further $500,000 in funding from angel investors, which has allowed it to boost staff to 12, from three at the beginning of the year. Ashtari plans to hire another 10 employees in the next three months.
X-Matik is one of seven entities to receive approval from the Ontario government to test self-driving cars on the province's roads. The others are Uber, the University of Waterloo, Erwin Hymer Group, BlackBerry's QNX, Continental and Magna. X-Matik says its system has logged 56,000 kilometres since testing began last year.
Ashtari has high praise for the government for giving smaller companies the opportunity to participate alongside bigger competitors. "Ontario saw that our technology was on par with pretty much anything else they've seen," he says. "If only big companies are allowed to innovate, then innovation is going to be really slow."
Bigger companies have been less kind. Tesla, in particular, has been critical of Comma.ai, a U.S.-based company that is working on similar aftermarket autonomy.
"It is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles," the electric car maker has said. "It may work as a limited demo on a known stretch of road … but then requires enormous resources to debug over millions of miles of widely differing roads."
Industry analysts are cautious, pointing out that X-Matik's kit lacks some of the advanced technologies being built into autonomous cars by bigger companies, such as laser-radar and sonar.
But they also note that making self-driving technology more affordable, rather than a luxury, will be key to its widespread adoption.
"You can't go out and buy a new Tesla if you're a student," says Nigel Wallis, vice-president for internet of things and industry research at IDC Canada. "The idea of being able to democratize self-driving cars has promise."
Ashtari admits his company's system has limitations because of its lack of additional sonar and radar, but adds that it warns drivers when those limits are reached so that they can take over. "We're quite used to hearing that skepticism," he says.