George Hotz just wants to build robots. You can see the desire in the Comma 3, the next-generation assisted driving hardware from his company, Comma.ai.
“It’s got two eyes,” he tells me, pointing to the two forward-facing cameras. He then holds the device up to his face so I can see the cameras are spaced about as far apart as a set of eyes on a human.
Hotz goes on, “It has a mouth for speaking. It can breathe air to cool itself… We’re building a human head.”
“We’re building a human head.”
You may remember Hotz when he went by the hacker name “geohot” to jailbreak an iPhone at the tender age of 17. Since then, he’s been a thorn in Elon Musk’s side, dissing Tesla’s Autopilot technology. And he’s pissed off Sony by breaking into a PlayStation 3. (Sony sued but later dropped the suit on the condition that Hotz agree to never tinker with its hardware again.)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been keeping a keen eye on him, to the point where Hotz nearly stopped making the Comma unit altogether in 2016. He fired himself as CEO of Comma and now claims he’s just a marketing intern. (He also took a recent spin as an intern at Musk’s Twitter but quit after a couple of weeks.)
Hotz is outspoken about his dislike for native driver-assist systems, and he’s always wanted to “make driving chill.” I’m about to get a demo in this latest iteration to see just how chill it can be.
The Comma 3 is larger than a cellphone but smaller than an iPad. Unlike past iterations, the Openpilot assisted-driving software is already downloaded into the device. After all, what good is a head without any brains? Drivers need only mount the system to the windshield, run the wire down to the vehicle’s CAN bus, and plug it in. There, it accesses the car’s adaptive cruise control and lane-centering technology, turning them up to 11.
The Comma 3 hands-free driving-assist technology is better than anything you can get from a legacy manufacturer. On a demonstration drive in Las Vegas, the system is installed into a Kia EV6. There is a rear-facing camera on the Comma 3 directed toward me to ensure I don’t take my eyes off the road or fall asleep. If I do, it issues a visual warning, then an audible one if I still refuse to pay attention — or wake up.
The Comma 3 hands-free driving-assist technology is better than anything you can get from a legacy manufacturer
The six-inch display screen shows the road ahead, an overlay of the lane markings so I know what it’s seeing, the car’s speed, and the max speed of the system. The device also acts as a dash cam, recording up to 1TB of video, if that’s your jam. It’s GPS enabled, although it won’t follow those directions on its own just yet.
To start, I just press the adaptive cruise control button on the Kia’s steering wheel. At first, it’s not much different than GM’s Super Cruise or Ford’s BlueCruise. I can take my hands off the wheel and the system follows traffic easily, taking gentle curves smoothly, changing lanes on its own, and all in all, not causing much fuss. However, drivers can only use the systems from Ford and GM on premapped roads. The Comma 3 is good pretty much anywhere.
That’s because it takes all its direction from the two high-tech cameras. It sees the lane markings, the pace of the other cars around it, a few traffic cones, and even one wayward bicyclist and just… drives. Of course, I keep my eyes up, and I’m ready to take over at any time, but the Comma-controlled Kia is doing just fine on its own.
The biggest upgrade from the Comma 2 is the ability to recognize traffic lights. A few times during my drive, I am the first in line at a red light. The Comma 3 sees the red light and stops the car smoothly, front tires in line with the corner curbing, something I failed to do on my own driving test when I was 16 and walked away with a 97 percent instead of a perfect score. It holds the car at a full stop until the light turns green, then it gently accelerates away.
The biggest upgrade from the Comma 2 is the ability to recognize traffic lights
The Comma 3 is one of the only systems on the road today that can stop at red lights. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system, a beta driver-assist program that doesn’t enable fully autonomous capabilities (no matter what Musk says), “identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision,” according to the company’s website.
Another “oh wow” moment is when the car in front of me turns right into a gas station. Other native adaptive cruise control systems slow for the turning car, then wait until the lead car is completely out of the lane before it starts accelerating again. This is not how humans drive and always leaves me yelling “go, you stupid computer!” The Comma 3 gets it right, accelerating when the turning car is mostly out of the lane. It’s a much more natural experience.
Even driving through a few tight chicanes feels pretty ordinary. Instead of keeping the car directly centered in the lane, the Comma 3 gives a much more natural path, cutting the corners ever so slightly, though still staying within the lane markings.
That’s not to say the Comma 3 is perfect. It disengaged once on my test drive at a fairly confusing intersection. The light is situated in the middle of a curve in the road and the sun is reflecting off the painted lines on the pavement. The human driver, me, is a bit confused, so it’s tough to fault the robot.
That’s not to say the Comma 3 is perfect
Still, as good as the Comma 3 is, it does not make your car drive itself. Even with my hands off the wheel, I still have to pay attention and be ready to take over at any time. Case in point — I’m stopped at a red left-turn arrow, but when it turns green, the car doesn’t go.
“It’s scared,” says Hotz, reminding me that he really does think of this system as a human-like robot. However, all I need to do is give the steering wheel a little bit of input, and the car starts the turn. Driving assist, yes. Self-driving, no.
The Comma 3 is compatible with over 200 vehicles, some with a model year as old as 2014. Comma.ai says its system works especially well with late-model Hyundai and Toyota cars. You can snag one at Comma.ai’s website for $1,499, more if you want more memory storage for video plus $200 for your car’s specific wiring harness.
The unit has been on the market for about a year and a half, and 5,000 of them are in drivers’ hands as we speak. Hotz thinks that, within two years, we’ll see a Chinese manufacturer build a car with his technology built in. However, it’s unclear what the future holds for Hotz and his company.
He says, “This is not the game plan forever. I think that we’re going to have a great five-year run where we make a couple hundred million dollars selling these things, but long term, I want to push way beyond these things… The real thing you want is a chauffeur. The real thing you want is a humanoid robot that will sit down in your driver’s seat and drive the car.”
Hotz claims to have a rudimentary Comma body, and I’ve already seen the Comma head during this demo. Whether a full-driving — or vacuuming or cooking — robot is something that Comma.ai can produce remains to be seen. One thing I can say for sure: hacker-turned-robot-builder is quite a career trajectory.
Update January 10th, 2:29PM ET: Tesla’s Full Self-Driving beta system identifies and stops at traffic lights. A previous version of this story did not state that clearly.