Comma.ai is a startup company known in equal measures for the product it has made and the person who made it. Founder George Hotz, who goes by “geohot,” first gained notoriety for carrier-unlocking an early iPhone and exploiting Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. More recently, Hotz and a team of around 50 people have been working on self-driving vehicle software — only, he’s careful not to label it “fully autonomous.”
Their first product, an aftermarket car kit that was supposed to cost $999, was canceled in late October after Hotz found himself in hot water with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Now, Hotz and his team have come back with another project.
That’s what Hotz was showing off in a residential garage in the Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco yesterday morning. Wearing jeans, a long-sleeved white T-shirt, and a black knit cap punctuated with a white comma, Hotz was a burrito-eating bundle of nervous energy. He chatted with members of the press, myself included, before the event officially kicked off. He asked if anyone was planning to Facebook Live the briefing. (No one was.)
“I’m not going to call it ‘pivot’ but we’re changing our strategy a bit,” Hotz said when I asked about the soon-to-be-revealed product. “A lot of people thought I balked at questions before. I didn’t balk at the questions, I balked at when they were asked. Not only had we not shipped a product yet — we had nothing for sale. NHTSA,” Hotz continued, “only regulates what is sold.” (The NHTSA did put out its first rulebook on self-driving cars earlier this fall, proposing that tech companies and carmakers deploying autonomous vehicles pass a 15-point safety test and share more data; but the guidelines are not mandatory, yet.)
Hotz pointed to a license plate hanging on the wall, one that used to say “FUELON,” an obvious jab at Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk. The “F” had been covered with a heart. “Everything I said about Zoox, I take it back. Zoox and Cruise Automation,” Hotz said, referring to competing autonomous vehicle companies. “We’re all trying to solve the same problems.”
Just before the presentation began, Hotz hopped up from his chair and went to a computer monitor in the corner of the room. Moments later, Warren G and Nate Dogg’s 1994 hit “Regulate” began to play. “Regulators... mount up!” the song began. Hotz smiled and said it’s fitting, because, regulators. He closed the garage door, dimmed the lights — all of them except for a string of holiday lights — and started to cycle through a series of slides on a monitor hanging on the back wall of the garage.
What Comma.ai unveiled was a kind of guidebook for researchers and tinkerers on how to retrofit cars and give them more autonomous capabilities. Hotz announced that they were releasing brand-new, open-source software on Github called Open Pilot, and that they were also publishing guidelines on how to 3D-print a physical box called the Comma Neo. (In order to work properly, the Neo box also requires a $400, Chinese-made OnePlus 3 smartphone.) The Comma Neo box is meant to replace the rear view mirror, and uses cameras and advanced data processing to offer features like lane assist and adaptive cruise control in certain car models.
The idea is not radically different from Comma One, the first product that Hotz had to scrap. Earlier this year, The Verge went for a test-drive with Hotz in Las Vegas, in an Acura tricked out with a beta version of Comma One. While it wasn’t perfect, the Acura was able to autonomously slow down and speed up on a long, straight highway. But what’s different about the new Open Pilot software and Comma Neo box is that it is completely free. What Comma.ai is doing now is effectively sidestepping regulators by not selling a product.
“We’ve put out everything you need to replicate this,” Hotz said, but repeated that they “are not selling or shipping hardware.”
Hotz peppered his garage presentation with quotes — one from Eminem, one from Kanye West, another from Peter Thiel, and one from George Hotz himself, said at an earlier tech event: “If they [Tesla] are the iOS of self-driving cars, we want to be the Android.” The Thiel quote was meant to underscore Comma.ai’s earlier legal woes, of having to hire lawyers to respond to regulators; as a single-digit millionaire company, “you have no effective access to the legal system,” Hotz lamented.
He was ebullient at times, saying more than once that Comma.ai offers better software than anything that exists in available cars today except for Teslas. Another engineer, Michael Graczyk, went as far as saying that Comma.ai would surpass Tesla in quality eventually.
But Hotz faltered a bit at other moments. One reporter grilled him about security concerns, to which Hotz replied, “Your car is already connected to the internet ... it doesn’t open your car up to a threat more than you have already.” When I asked Hotz why he has decided to commit to autonomous vehicle software — what problem he is hoping to solve, specifically — he said that he’s not big on moralizing. “I just think the technology itself is cool,” adding that he sees “potential benefits.”
The notion of free software, tied to hardware that the company doesn’t plan to sell, naturally brings up questions about how venture-backed Comma.ai will make money. “How does anybody make money? Our goal is to basically own the network. We want to own the network of self driving cars out there,” Hotz said. He also said he hopes to work with aftermarket suppliers. But that’s also not top of mind right now: on a whiteboard in the Comma.ai garage, “Profit” falls below “Fun” and “Solve self-driving cars” on the list of priorities.
Hotz concluded the event with another quote, this time from Drake. “Everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness. If you ain’t been a part of it, at least you got to witness,” the slide read. Even after the presentation ended, Hotz seemed more than happy to keep answering questions.