Self-driving cars coming to a college campus near you as price of tech drops

Consider this scene at a California state college campus:

A futuristic-looking golf cart rolls towards a student walking with her books. When it gets near, it stops on its own, then Brandon Moak leans out and says, “Would you like a ride in a self-driving vehicle?”

Moak doesn’t work for Google or Tesla or any of the other research labs started by major automakers. Last year, he and some friends dropped out of the University of Waterloo and started Varden Labs, an automated vehicle startup based out of a rented house just north of San Jose. This spring, the company started loaning the vehicle to various college campuses around the state to give undergrads a ride to class.

It doesn’t go very fast and, therefore, doesn’t have to predict how it will drive very far down the road, unlike Google cars cruising at highway speeds. As it moves down the a thoroughfare at California State University Sacramento it stops and starts often and the steering system is constantly adjusting itself.

But here’s the thing: It didn’t cost a lot to build. And if Varden is able to operate at scale, it’d cost even less.

Self-driving cars have long been considered the province for big organizations. But these days, as some of the key pieces of technology have dropped in price and investor interest has soared, even a few college dropouts can get one on the road. That’s set off an investment frenzy among venture capitalists and major carmakers.

In March, General Motors announced a $1bn acquisition of Cruise Automation, a startup that sells self-driving conversion kits to hobbyists for highway cruising. Andreesen Horowitz recently invested in Comma, the small automation company started by George Hotz, a hacker who made his Acura drive itself around the Bay Area. Varden Labs meantime has the backing of Y-Combinator, an influential Silicon Valley startup incubator.

These startups don’t enable vehicles that navigate fully on their own – they only work in certain situations – intersection-less freeways and closed campuses.

But it suggests that as big organizations such as Google and Uber labor on fully autonomous vehicles that can pick people up from the pub or ferry roadtrippers across the country, many consumers may get their first tastes of the auto-future from one of these hot-wired shops.

This now includes students at Sacramento State.

On a cool March morning Moak, only 20 himself, sat in what would be the driver’s seat and offered students a ride to class. Reactions ranged from shock to confusion.

“I have no control over the vehicle right now,” he boasted to one passenger.

For now, Varden is doing short trials at California universities, where it will do a campus loop or go back and forth down a main drag. In the future, it envisions leaving the vehicles at schools and office campuses.

“It means we have a lot less regulations to deal with,” said Alex Rodrigues. “It means we’re a lot safer. That allows us to get going a lot faster than your average self-driving company.”

Varden Labs has used limited funds to rent a ranch-style house in the heart of Silicon Valley, the kind 20-somethings often turn into coders’ lairs. The focus with Varden, however, is just as much on hardware as software. They use a 3D printer to make some custom vehicle parts and the garage is littered with tools and vehicle parts.

This is all possible because the cost of a key piece of technology needed for some self-driving vehicles has fallen dramatically in recent years. If you look at a picture of a Google vehicle, you’ll notice an unsightly black device on top that sort of looks like a police siren. So-called lidars function as the all-seeing eye for many self-driving vehicles. They aren’t cameras, but rather sensors that map their surroundings by sending out beams of laser light.

The model on the original Google car cost $80,000. These days, its maker, Velodyne, offers a version for a tenth of the price. That still puts it outside the price range of hobbyists but within reach for many smaller companies.

There are of course other challenges in running a self-driving startup distinct from coding a new app. The cars aren’t legal on many roads. The federal government is still working through who is considered the driver. Many auto insurers don’t offer a self-driving package (Varden eventually went with Lloyd’s, known for insuring exotic risks, such as Bruce Springsteen’s voice).

And of course, there’s the inherent risk of taking your hands off the steering wheel. Varden said they had to steer clear of Facebook’s founding mantra, “Move fast and break things”.

“We’re not allowed to break things,” Rodrigues said.

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