George Hotz, founder of Comma.ai told the world at TechCrunch that he was going to ship a $999 aftermarket autopilot system – the Comma One. The smartphone-sized device was designed to replace the rearview mirror enabling an automated driving experience in appropriately equipped cars – initially certain Acura and Honda models.
Last week the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sent Hotz a letter seeking answers to questions regarding the functionality of his device. They also noted that a failure to respond to their outreach would lead to $21,000/day fines.
The agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, made clear that since the installation of the Comma.ai device required disabling and removal of existing safety technology in the car it violated various aspects of the Safety Act. Hotz quickly folded his tent indicating that he had no interest in tangling with lawyers and regulators. He also took issue with the NHTSA for what he perceived as a one dimensional communication that allowed no room for a conversation or negotiation regarding an actual market introduction of his device.
In his TechCrunch presentation Hotz more or less anticipated the demise of his efforts even as he was bragging about his achievement of actually delivering a product. He touted “shipability” as the key differentiator between Comma.ai and all other innovators in the space.
He took particular aim at Cruise Automation, long ago acquired by General Motors for a rumored $1B, describing the company as a “sellout.” He further ascribed mafia-like characteristics to Mobileye’s domination of the self-driving market.
In fact, he emphasized the value and power of his independence and his ability to control his own destiny since he had access to raw data that he was free to analyze and aggregate as he saw fit without any pre-processing or filtering. We can expect to hear more about this independent approach in the future, but for now Hotz has been sidelined.
NHTSA’s arrival on the aftermarket self-driving car scene raises questions about the ability of innovators like Hotz to bring their systems to market or at least test their ideas in real-world circumstances. Hotz claimed at TechCrunch to have more than 730 beta users in the field.
There are at least five other companies working in the aftermarket space including Pilot Automotive, Pearl Auto, Perrone Robotics, TorcRobotics and Paravan Industry. Presumably these companies have a path to testing and product development that will not run afoul of NHTSA.
Having pulled the plug on one player, though, it is possible that NHTSA may become more assertive. Kicking Hotz to the curb (or throwing him under the self-driving bus?) is like swatting a fly for NHTSA. Given the fact that Tesla Motors’ automated driving system offers a value proposition comparable to Comma One should we expect to see NHTSA exerting veto power over future enhanced cruise control or other safety systems from car companies?
It will be a shame if NHTSA’s entry into the automated driving conversation actually slows or delays development of this technology. The emergence of Cruise and Comma.ai and others reflects the reality that the tools for creating built-in and aftermarket self-driving systems are proliferating bringing with them a corresponding reduction in cost.
NHTSA will soon have its hands full. The best outcome will be for NHTSA to find a way to constructively engage with these innovators and developers rather than simply waiting on the sidelines with their finger on the termination trigger. Lives are truly at stake. With highway fatalities on the rise in the U.S. and around the world it seems clear that we need to advance this technology as rapidly as possible. Perhaps Hotz is just an overheated outlier. Let’s hope that is the case.