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Comma.ai – from hacking cell phones to a better Smart Car

By    |   May 3, 2018, 6:32 am EDT

The main challenge that CEO George Hotz is tackling head on is developing smarter computers that can make better decisions. The tracking and data input systems are all there, what’s lacking is how well the car can make decisions on its own.

It’s all about how the technology can make interpretations on the spot and develop new models that can make better quality decisions. With the controversy around self-driving cars making headlines around the world, George is trying to make sure that the tech behind Comma.ai is pristine.

George’s online avatar Geohot has been one of the most popular internet characters in recent memory. His claim to fame was a few years ago when he successfully hacked into an iPhone and became the first person to do so at the age of 17. A few years after, he was done with hacking and wanted to do something innovative instead.

That’s when in 2015 George started a new company called Comma.ai. He wanted to take smart cars and make it available to anyone anywhere. Not only that, he wanted to make any car instantly become a smart car through his product.

George started off with creating an app called Chffr, which was a dash-cam for a car. Chffr gave you all the information you needed about your car and made it easy for everyday drivers to track their car’s stats better.

This was an ingenious move, as the free app got access to a lot of data being sent in by users. When they started to launch their self-driving product, they had already collected 300,000 miles of free data and over 8000 hours of raw footage. That’s a lot of high-quality information that was available to George to launch his new product.

What George ended up creating was a self-driving kit that anyone could install in their vehicles. All you need to do is to fit the kit onto to the car and you have a self-driving element ready to work. The price was set at an incredibly low $999 + $24/month, so that the product could be used by as many people as possible.

What happened next is something that’s become a learning lesson in Silicon Valley. George had vocal differences with Elon Musk about the kind of technology that should back driverless cars. They exchanged opinions many times over and George ultimately stuck to his guns.

In 2016, Comma was issued a cease and desist order which changed the way that he would be running his company for the years to come. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration didn’t want the Comma One to be released at scale, and effectively shut down the project.

Subsequently, the NHTSA issued a “special order”, asking George all sorts of questions about regulatory compliances and core-technology parameters. There wasn’t much information provided about why it shut down, but in a tweet issued from the official Comma.ai account, mentioned China as a potential market.

That didn’t stop George from making an impact in the AI and self-driving cars space. He released the Comma Neo for free under the MIT license for anyone to use it. The technology became Open Source, and hundreds of people benefitted from their innovation.

While this was all in the past, George considers self-driving a journey now. When he’s looking back at how he got here, he’s reminded of his first app Chffr, which ultimately was the point of inception for his technology advancements.

Right now, George considers driving to be a dance. According to a recent SEC filing, he’s raised close to $5Million from an unknown investor to further his mission of creating driverless cars.

He’s competing with some of the biggest companies in the world, and he’s confident that the video data in his storage database is enough to propel the company to the next level.

According to George, the problem isn’t that we’re building better cars with better software. The problem is still all about how attentive the actual drivers are. In a medium post written recently by Comma.ai, George discusses how the Uber and Tesla crashed could have been avoided had the driver been paying attention on the road.

 

Virtual map created by sensors via Comma.AI technology (Photo via Comma.AI Medium)

Driverless cars aren’t meant to be a replacement for having your eyes on the road. They’re following simple instructions that are built by learning about the environment. George insists that any manufacturer that’s building the next big self-driving car, need to have safety instructions built in for all drivers.

George is trying to move the power dynamics away from the major manufacturers and trying to build tools that help everyday coders to make self-driving possible. In his own words, the Tesla Autopilot is like the iOS and the Comma.ai is like the Android. Comma.ai’s software and hardware packages open up the world of self-driving cars to anyone who wants to tinker.

It’s similar to how the Arduino revolutionized the way people looked at IoT and cloud. Technology has been shifting the way that we think about utility, scale and implementation. The technology available in current-gen hardware will not be able to compare to the shifts we’ll see 5-6 years from now. The prospect of building the future through automobile automation still excites George.

Delivery batches for Comma.AI product line (Photo via Comma.AI Twitter)

When it comes to process, George is doing the same thing that the big manufacturers are doing. He’s finding mistakes that drivers are making with his current solution and makes the computer code learn to fix them for the future.

While going open source may have been the best thing for Comma.ai, there is much to be known about what the next steps are. That’s why Comma.ai is an interesting company to watch in the years to come. Right now, they’re focusing on Level 3 driver-less car systems that still need a driver to be in the vehicle at all times.

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