GeoHot couldn't sell his US$1000 self-driving car kit, so he's giving it away. Faced with the threat of huge fines from the US Department of Transport, self-driving car startup comma.ai has open sourced its autonomous driving kit, which anyone can now install using about $700 worth of hardware.
Comma.ai was a small company with a big promise: the team was working on a US$1000 kit that would give your Honda or Acura car a set of self driving capabilities roughly equal to Tesla's Autopilot.
Led by a wild-eyed, impish software wizard called George Hotz (also known as GeoHot, the guy that made the first iPhone jailbreak and hacked the Sony Playstation 3), comma.ai sought to simplify the hardware and programming side of autonomous driving by taking advantage of huge leaps in recent machine learning technology.
Early tests looked like it was working way ahead of schedule, too. After watching Hotz and his team drive for a few months, the system seemed to be working things out. It was far from perfect when it took the wheel, needing plenty of human supervision, but it was improving rapidly and showing signs that it could handle irregular road markings (such as the lack of painted lines around Las Vegas freeways) with some intelligence. The learning machine was picking up things that programmers might not, like the shiny, smooth tracks car tires can wear into an old piece of road.
The main thing it needed was data. Thousands upon thousands of hours of driving data from a broad base of different drivers and road conditions, that could feed its learning engine, slowly ironing out problems. And that was where consumers came in – the comma one system was due to launch by the end of 2016 as a sub-thousand dollar kit.
And then it all came screeching to a halt, when the US Department of Transportation sent comma.ai a special order demanding that the company prove the device was safe, and threatening fines to the tune of US$21,000 per day. Hotz and the team had assumed that they didn't need to meet Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, as the comma one system required a driver to be supervising at all times.
In response, Hotz sent out a flurry of tweets saying he'd "much rather spend [his] life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers," that the comma one was cancelled, and hinting that the team might be taking their talents to China.
But in a surprise move today, comma.ai made the self-driving system available in an unexpected way by open sourcing the self-driving software on GitHub, and encouraging tinkerers to build their own hardware units according to a set of instructions.
Physical parts cost around US$700, and include a OnePlus3 mobile phone as the heart and display of the unit, as well as a custom-ordered, 3D-printed case. Hotz describes the assembly process as no harder than assembling a piece of IKEA furniture – but there's a decent amount of soldering involved, so some electronics knowledge would certainly be handy.
The system will operate basically like an adaptive cruise control with lane keeping assist. It doesn't have the Tesla system's ability to change lanes, but other than that, the team says it's "about on par with Autopilot at launch, and better than all other manufacturers." Mind you, Tesla is just about to push out a major Autopilot update that may push the game and the goalposts further ahead.
The OpenPilot system will work on the 2016 Acura ILX and Honda Civic Touring Edition out of the box. Some minor tweaking will add support for the CR-V Touring, and other cars will be "more of an undertaking." You can see the system in action in the video below (warning - there's NSFW language playing on the car stereo).
By open sourcing the system, Hotz and the comma.ai team are able to get their work out onto the road without the liability issues of selling a fully fledged product, and hopefully they'll be able to assemble enough users, and get enough driving data into the learning system that before long they may be able to prove the system's robustness for commercial use.
The question now is ... Who's game to give it a go?