For now, project Elcano is a self-driving electric tricycle. But its makers have far more ambitious plans using the power of crowdfunding.
For now, project Elcano is a self-driving electric tricycle. But its makers have far more ambitious plans using the power of crowdfunding. Jigsaw Renaissance/RocketHub
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The Popular Science #CrowdGrant Challenge

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Google’s self-driving car doesn’t come cheap. Minus the price of the vehicle itself, the Silicon Valley’s autonomy-enabling equipment costs about $150,000. A plucky group of do-it-yourselfers in Seattle, however, hopes to design a far cheaper, more accessible driverless system from the start.

In development since 2007, project Elcano is the brainchild of Tyler Folsom, an electrical engineer whose resume includes work on everything from NASA spacecraft to driverless vehicles for DARPA challenges.

He and a team of six others are finalists in Popular Science‘s #CrowdGrant Challenge, and they’re asking for crowdfunding to “produce a circuit board that can help anybody make any car robotic,” Folsom says in Elcano’s promotional video.

This DIY Team Is Trying To Build 1,000-MPG Autonomous Vehicles

Elcano’s first prototype is a recumbent tricycle outfitted with five Arduino control boards, a motor, actuators, and a battery. A driver controls the trike with a joystick, or using a semi-autonomous mode, and all of its systems are computer-controlled, i.e. no cables, levers, or other mechanical controls.

The next step is to help the tricycle drive itself, but nothing road-ready (yet). Rather, team Elcano sees remote-control car hobbyists, mechanics, and autonomous vehicle enthusiasts as crucial stepping stones to more ambitious hardware and software development.

For now, they’re asking for $3,500 goal to print four custom-designed circuit boards and consolidate a mess of wiring and components on their prototypes. That way, team members can quickly swap out hardware and rapidly test new electronic steering, path planning, obstacle avoidance, navigation, and other systems. In exchange for cash, backers can take their pick of new circuit board kits, software libraries, and other perks.

The team ultimately hopes that a series of crowdfunded projects, each improving on ones before it, will help lead to a fully autonomous, road-ready electric vehicle system that costs between $4,000 and $15,000, yet enables 1,000 mpg-equivalent efficiency.

“Autonomy has implications not just for safety, but for fuel efficiency,” Folsom says. “This can cut energy [use] by a factor of 10.”

Arduino MegaShieldDB

Arduino MegaShieldDB

One of four custom printed circuit boards, or PCBs, that Elcano’s developers hope to build with crowdfunding. This one streamlines microprocessor wiring and incorporates a wireless receiver to enable an emergency stopping feature.

For more on the Rockethub-Popular Science #CrowdGrant Challenge, click here.