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Automotive industry giants and would-be behemoths are working hard on developing self-driving cars. Work is underway to create advanced artificial intelligences (AI) systems that aim to control all aspects of purpose built vehicles, from steering and accelerating, through collision avoidance and navigation, to automatically maintaining in-car comfort for passengers. Development of these different systems is at varying stages, but they share one thing in common – the cars they enhance or revolutionise are not cheap, at all. Be it the latest Tesla, or a Mercedes armed with the company’s Autobahn Pilot system, for many of us these offerings are prohibitively expensive.

Perrone Robotics, from Charlottesville, Virginia, is working on a different approach that has the potential to be far, far more affordable. The folks behind the company realised that what really matters for vehicular autonomy is not the fancy box, but the digital AI that sits inside it. They have devised a Drop-in Autonomy Kit that they claim takes only half an hour to install. The Drop-in Kit augments the existing car without much alteration, and uses externals actuators to work the steering wheel, brake and throttle.

Autonomous Stuff, from Morton, Illinois, are working on a very similar system slated to hit the market in the beginning of 2016. Like the Drop-in Kit, it uses actuators to manipulate the car’s controls, and relies on an in-house developed AI and data from radar, GPS, mapping, and possibly LIDAR. Development on the system is nearing completion, with both acceleration and braking nearly done.

Both these systems are not road legal at this stage. Whether augmentation of this sort can spark a new life into an aging fleet of non-autonomous vehicles once self-driving becomes a reality will depend on the willingness of lawmakers to allow it. If they decide to restrict autonomy to purpose built vehicles, junk yards the world over could be overflowing with dumb cars.