FutureStructure

Can Hacker Tools Help Us Add Self-Driving Features to Our Cars, DIY-Style?

Comma.ai is releasing various components that developers and tinkerers can use to create their own kits to add features like lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control to existing cars.

by Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle / July 10, 2017

(TNS) -- At age 17, George Hotz achieved worldwide fame as the first person to jailbreak the original iPhone, allowing it to be used with any wireless carrier.

Now, a decade later, he’s doing something similar with vehicles, releasing hardware and software to enable tech-savvy people to hack into cars and give them self-driving features.

“Let’s take something historically siloed and locked down by manufacturers and let’s unlock it,” Hotz said in the five-bedroom rented mansion in San Francisco’s tony St. Francis Wood where his company, Comma.ai, is based. He lives there with three of the 10 employees. “We want to build core back end technology to enable self-driving cars to exist.”

Comma.ai originally planned a $1,000 kit to allow people to retrofit their cars to be self-driving. But it backed away in October after stern warnings from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which questioned its safety. Hotz said he’s happy to avoid regulatory battles and direct dealings with consumers. Instead, Comma.ai is releasing various components that developers and tinkerers can use to create their own kits to add features like lane-keeping assistance and adaptive cruise control to existing cars.

“There’s a whole world of people who used to mess with their cars,” Hotz said. “But that’s gone because you can’t modify cars with torque wrenches; they are computers now. We want to provide that same level of access to people interested in modifying their cars.”

Hotz, whom the New Yorker called “the most famous hacker in the world,” sees his technology as equivalent to the Android phone, providing a platform for developers to create their own products. Comma has several offerings:

  • Panda, a hardware device that plugs into a car’s OBD-II port, the connector that allows mechanics and others to check the status of systems such as emissions controls. Available now for $88, Panda is “the best universal car interface ever,” according to Hotz, who is fond of superlatives. Its USB and wireless connectivity allow a computer or phone to “talk” to the car’s subsystems “as a first step to make cars self-driving,” he said.
  • Openpilot, open-source self-driving software, available since late November. Hotz said 73 people are using it, including “high-level tinkerers and a few companies,” some of which are building commercial products based on it.
  • Chffr, a dashcam app that lets users record and review their rides, and trains cars to be self-driving by harvesting information that Comma uses to improve Openpilot.
  • Cabana, a website that analyzes data retrieved from the car via Panda and Chffr. Car manufacturers heavily guard such data, allowing only limited access for mechanics, according to Hotz. Cabana and Panda go deeper, he said, “democratizing access to the decoder ring for your car.” The pair would allow someone to build apps that are like Fitbits for a car, tracking things like gear performance, tips for smoother driving and how to save gas on the driver’s commute.

Andrew Barnett, a business analyst for a software company, uses Comma’s technology for semiautonomy on his daily highway commute in Dallas and said it’s been an “amazing” experience.

Barnett bought a $1,000 product from a company called Neodriven that packaged Comma’s components into a plug-and-play kit. After a couple of hours of installation, the kit controlled the car’s adaptive cruise control and lane keeping. His 2016 Honda Civic already had those features, but he said the Comma ones are much better.

“The adaptive cruise control from Honda Sensing is almost embarrassing in bumper-to-bumper traffic; it drives like a 16-year-old just learning,” he said. The Comma/Neodriven technology “is far more smooth; there’s not as many gaps, and you don’t constantly have cars weaving in and out.

Elliot Katz, an attorney who leads DLA Piper’s connected and autonomous vehicle group, said he thinks letting innovators like Comma compete in the marketplace will ultimately result in safer cars.

“Just as everyone has a choice about what car they buy, we should also have a choice in what automated technology we decide to use,” he said. “If a startup offers a product that can save lives and make safer cars, everyone should be in favor of that.”

Comma has $3.1 million in seed funding raised a year ago from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Hotz said he has half the money left, thanks to running a lean operation, spending less than $10,000 a month to rent the three-story St. Francis Wood house, for instance.

The basement and garage are stocked with tools such as a circuit board maker, laser cutter and four 3-D printers. In the driveway, an engineer peered under the hood of a white Acura that’s rigged with Comma’s technology.

Long-term, the company’s business model is to work with insurance companies, all of which would appreciate technology to reduce accidents, Hotz said, without giving specifics.

For Panda, his target is modest: selling a thousand or so units over the next couple of months.

“This is less about giving you a spoon-fed experience, and more about you getting this to explore your car and see what’s possible,” Hotz said.

Then he waxed more hyperbolic. “Our company mission is to build and ship the world’s first superhuman driving agent, software that drives your car,” he said.

©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.