What Are the Best Donor Vehicles for Autonomous Driving Research & Development?

Whether you are a student starting out, trying to understand the technology or already established , you will inevitably have questions about why certain vehicles are seen more in the media or testing areas like Silicon Valley far more than any others, especially when looking at news stories and press releases about autonomous vehicle research and development.

To help peer through the fog of confusion, we have highlighted some of these vehicles and dug in to why they are popular, what’s special about them and what sort of organisations are using them. We have deliberately omitted custom-built vehicles and pods because these are typically not accessible on the open market.. and the users aren’t exhaustive either!

Kia Soul

PolySync was one of the first add-on suppliers to offer kits to automate the Kia Soul.

Because of this low-cost of entry, it’s often the first vehicle used by startups to demonstrate early prototypes during their seed funding stage.The Soul’s unencrypted CAN bus meant that accessing the manufacturer’s own electrical hardware, including aspects of the control system used for powertrain, steering and more, is fairly straightforward.  The vehicle is also the official testbed for Kia’s own self driving efforts. Older vehicles usually require some upgrades (notably for electronic control of the brakes) but are mostly ready to go and readily available on the second-hand market.

Used by: Polysync, Acacus, FIVE.ai, Imagry, University of Michigan, Kia

AwardedBest for startups and learning your trade

Ford Fusion / Mondeo and Lincoln MKZ

Oxbotica’s Selenium operating system can be dropped into many different vehicle types, including the Ford Fusion.

The vehicle’s size and capacity (seats, storage and battery) mean it’s ideal to host heavier equipment outside and inside, more people and more electrical power for processing and longer runs.Built on the same platform, the hybrid version of these cars, with a modest engine, hefty battery and drive-by-wire hardware is a big step up in comfort from the Twizy, providing intercity range as well as cruising comfort.

Enabled by Dataspeed’s drive-by-wire software and additional control hardware kit piggybacking on existing hardware (mostly to improve the reliability of robotic control signals), there are around 400 of these vehicles in circulation as mid 2018.

Used by: Uber ATG, AutonomouStuff, Oxbotica, Pony.ai, Voyage, FIVE.ai, Udacity, Ford

AwardedBest for scaleups

Chrysler Pacifica Minivan and Jaguar I PACE

The Pacifica Minivan is a likely candidate for autonomous taxis.

The company’s ‘Firefly’ car helped them crack technical problems but they have moved on now, that is how mature Waymo is…  and while the company has ordered thousands of each (60,000 Chryslers and 20,000 all-electric Jaguars), those order sizes mean that they are also guaranteed a seat at the table of two companies that have a very close understanding of specialised chassis and systems assembly, but also of their consumers  – the town and country family (driverless school runs and holidays anyone?) and the older, wealthier quality-demanding consumer (off-road country, city living, all in luxury).Waymo’s partnerships with FCA and JLR are driven mostly by experience with consumers, and as such these vehicles are really important, not because they are necessarily the best vehicle to work with for technologists but probably the best vehicles for service users.

These vehicles represent business relationships which are sure to be productive to the manufacturers too, and now Waymo is officially its own entity, the pressure is on to generate revenue.

Used by: Waymo, Minivan also used by Cruise, with other research teams taking advantage of the New Eagle Drive By Wire kit for the Pacifica.

AwardedBest for commercial operations

Lexus RX 450

Popular in Silicon Valley, the Lexus RX 450H enjoys a cult geek following.

One of the most mature hybrid vehicle platforms, its following is legendary and software eminently hackable. Coupled with very reliable advanced driver assistance systems already in place, the RX makes for a useful base for R&D.

With space in the back for plenty of processing, and lots of talent with experience on the platform (notably in silicon valley) developed over the past decade, it should come as no surprise that the RX is the go-to platform for the tech giants.

With open-source projects on GitHub, and hardware access thanks to low-cost dongles, the fact it’s also a great car means that there are plenty of good examples on the second hand market too, and it’s a reliable fleet vehicle.

Used by: Torc, Google, Apple, Toyota Research Institute, AutonomouStuff, Comma.ai

Awarded: Best for technologists

All other cars!

Manufacturers will typically tear down and rebuilt their own vehicles because there’s little or no overhead, they have people, facilities (including secret test facilities) and existing relationships with hundreds of component manufacturers, as well as the desire to work in relative secrecy and supportive governments often willing to underwrite the investment and provide tax breaks too.

They can also buy any product anywhere in the marketplace and take that apart too, or employ companies to do it for them.

Even if they don’t want to develop their own technologies, all they need to do is contract out the work to an appropriate engineering consultancy with lots of fresh experience, give them access to the encrypted control systems, upgrade the vehicles with bits lying around and they are off!

Between the raft of open source software and ever widening communities, now is a great time for manufacturers who don’t want to spend $1Billion on the tech.

Having watched and waited, they can quietly come in and start buying products and services off the shelf from companies like AB Dynamics (the leading vehicle testing robot retro-fit suppliers and supplier to every manufacturer and test facility in the world), AutonomouStuff (sensor kits, server stacks and great research facilities), Polysync (open source control and hardware stacks for the Soul), Oxbotica (University of Oxford spin-out and producer of an operating system for any autonomous vehicle), Vision Systems Intelligence (specialising evaluating sensor hardware and building out from there) and others already in their supply chain who have worked on developing accessible autonomous R&D platforms to turbo charge products into market readiness in a very short time.

The big Tier 1 suppliers – including the likes of Autoliv, Bosch, Valeo and Continental all work closely to help develop systems for car manufacturers, so many are supporting the efforts of the public-brands to move their technology experience forward.

Used by: Car manufacturers and Tier 1 suppliers

Awarded: Best for safety research and supply chain / workforce development

Honourable mentions…

Land Rover Defender and Bowler Wildcat variant: One of the oldest platforms still operating, used in the UK by Land Rover, British Aerospace, various partner universities and Millbrook. Robust platform ideal for military and off-road R&D.

Waymo Firefly: Developed and used only by Waymo. Probably the most influential as it shaped our view of what autonomous vehicles should look like and how they should behave, and has been very influential on manufacturers, so although it is a custom-built pod, its influence on what has happened since (notably in helping Waymo understand the needs of real users) must be recognised.  Retired in 2017.

Aurrigo Pod Zero: A spin-out from manufacturer RDM Group, UK-based Aurrigo has now reached the third generation of its four seater electric pod, used by many UK-based R&D consortia and has an additional manufacturing base in Australia and offices in the US and Canada.  Its custom software stack is based on ROS and the company is planning a bus-sized vehicle to be launched for trials in 2019.


Do you agree with our list? Was it useful to you?  Is there another vehicle we should add?  Contact us to give your feedback!