Why A Hacker Is Giving Away A Special Code That Turns Cars Into Self-Driving Machines

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Here is a strategy for start-ups dealing with regulators who might shut down your product: Make it free.

Scrappy self-driving car start-up Comma.ai released a free software kit on Wednesday to help developers learn to build a device that can turn any car into an autonomous vehicle. The year-old company, which is founded by a well-known hacker and backed by prominent Silicon Valley investors, hopes to accelerate the development of self-driving cars while skirting the ire of Washington.

The move raises questions of how the United States should foster innovation for promising technologies that also carry great risks. Experts say self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of accidents of the roadway, most of which are caused by human errors. But Comma’s self-driving kit has only logged roughly 5,000 miles of road time, a number that is effectively a useless barometer for judging safety, said John Simpson, of the safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

The announcement also reflects the types of maneuvering start-ups are increasingly engaging in as they chart a path in heavily regulated sectors of the economy. A wave of companies in areas such as housing, DNA testing and aerospace is weighing whether to work with officials or to follow the playbook of companies such as Uber and Airbnb — asking forgiveness, but not permission, and seeing where the chips fall.

In Comma’s case, the strategy was an end run around the rulemakers.

When Comma.ai’s founder, George Hotz, announced his plan to sell a do-it-yourself self-driving software and hardware kit for $999 at a large industry conference this fall, the tech world was giddy with excitement. While large automakers and technology giants have poured billions into autonomous vehicles, Comma’s tech would have dramatically lowered the bar for entry.

Washington was skeptical: Shortly after the announcement at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Hotz was slapped with a warning letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 27-year-old Hotz — who was the first person to jailbreak an iPhone and whose hacking capabilities earned him a New Yorker profile and an offer from Elon Musk to build Tesla’s automated systems — tweeted out the letter. It asked for detailed information about the safety of the product he said he intended to launch before the end of the year.

Within hours of getting the NHTSA letter, Hotz canceled the product launch. He didn’t have the money to hire lawyers required to get government approval, he said in an interview with The Post this week. Hotz added he had been receiving unnerving, unsolicited house calls from California officials, who stopped by to review what he was building.

He decided that a workaround would be to offer up the code to his kit — for free.

“We want to be the Android operating system for self-driving cars,” Hotz said at a news conference Wednesday, held in the company's garage in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Hotz was referring to the open-source smartphone operating system, which has become ubiquitous because it is free and developers can easily innovate on it.

The code, which is available on the open-source collaboration platform GitHub, allows anyone (but really, hardcore hackers) to build a dashcam-like device that they can set up in their car. The device plugs into a port in the car called a controller area network, or BUS (in most cars built after 2006). Users must build the device with a 3-D printer and have an Android OnePlus 3 phone to run the code and provide the camera that can scan the road.

Technically, Hotz’s software isn’t a fully autonomous car such as the ones being tested by Google or GM. Hotz says it is an open-source alternative to Tesla's autopilot, which is considered semi-autonomous. When a user switches it on, the car goes into an autopilot mode enabling the driver to take their hands off the wheel and the gas pedal. The car can also stay in its lane and brake for the driver. Currently, the software works only with some Hondas and Acuras.

For safety, Hotz said his self-driving software is designed to shut down and decelerate the vehicle after six minutes if the driver doesn’t actively keep it on.

Because NHTSA regulates commercial vehicles, Hotz said he is exempt from regulatory scrutiny because he is not selling anything.

NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said the agency had no comment.

Simpson, the Consumer Watchdog advocate, said he was skeptical of Hotz’s regulatory hack. He said that NHTSA has the authority to pull any car off the road that has features that make it an imminent danger, and that the agency has the authority to review free add-on features to cars. “Comma is a clear threat to highway safety, and attempting to release it like this is absolutely outrageous,” he said. “NHTSA and the California DMV should act now to keep vehicles equipped with Holtz’s device off the highway.”

He added that any driver who put this on their car could be breaking the law. Under California law, an autonomous vehicle is not allowed on a public road without a permit that includes a $5 million insurance policy and a demonstrable training program for drivers. Even though Hotz calls his innovation a “self-driving” kit, he argued his product is more like Tesla's autopilot and is therefore exempt from self-driving regulations.

Hotz warned that the government should not attempt to shut down a tool that could save lives, and said that engineers should be free to build products for the good of society. He also dismissed the possibility that open-sourcing the technology could enable hackers to break into cars, saying cars were already so connected to the Internet that the risk was present regardless.

“We’re not offering this as a consumer product,” Hotz said. “This is for tinkerers. These are people who, if they wanted to do bad things, they already could.”

Jabbing at bureaucrats everywhere, he opened his news conference playing the ’90s hip-hop classic “Regulate” and ended it with a lyric from the rapper Drake: “Everyone who doubted me is asking for forgiveness. If you ain't been a part of it, at least you got to witness.”


Elizabeth Dwoskin is The Washington Post's Silicon Valley Correspondent.

Follow @lizzadwoskin

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