Highway by Jamie Street

How One Unexpected Start Up Is Changing Autonomous Driving

Future of Transportation

George Hotz aka “geohot” became a teenage celebrity when he was the first to jailbreak an iPhone. His celebrity grew when he hacked the Sony PlayStation, which got him in some hot water. He has won many international hacking competitions by himself against teams of hackers from all over the world.

George Hotz, now 26, is about to introduce something that will make self-driving possible on any car with electronic power steering, fuel, and braking. Basically, any car with fuel injection, ABS, and stability control.

This winter, for $1000 through Amazon Prime, consumers can buy a kit that provides an autonomous driving experience.

Authentic AI

His company, comma.ai, has gained financial backing from Andreessen Horowitz, the noted venture capitalist firm that has backed successful startups like Oculus, Jawbone, and Instagram. This backing has allowed him and his small team of developers to create a self-driving kit from products which could actually be assembled off the shelves of tech stores, if you knew what you were doing.

But comma.ai’s product isn’t merely the hardware needed to create the self-driving car; it is the smart-technology that operates and even helps you install it. The software deviates from standard artificial intelligence programming in that it isn’t designed from a rulebook.

Most AI is coded with rules for the machine to follow.

Intuitive Technology

Comma.ai uses cameras to record human driving and subsequently learn from how humans act. Hotz says it’s like a baby, who early in life, does very little besides observe. Hotz and his team have been driving with the hardware so the software can witness what driving is and emulate it. This can be more effective than programming rules for the car to follow, because invariably, some rules would be missed.

The data gathering increased when comma.ai introduced a free app called chffr (short for chauffeur because nobody can spell it). Chffr is like a combination of Fitbit and Dropcam and can be downloaded on your phone. Then, when you mount your phone like a dashcam, it observes your driving tendencies and shares the data to comma.ai. The data collection creates more machine learning which ultimately and continuously improves the effectiveness of the software.

It’s as if every mile driven improves the software’s intuition.

Courtesy of comma.ai
Courtesy of comma.ai

Hive Mentality

Since the data is shared, it’s like a beehive in that the whole hive benefits from each car’s specific experience. The hive is constantly becoming smarter and more intuitive as each driver uses the app. The software is observing and learning – not merely being told what to do – so it can adapt to new situations. Hotz explains the roads in Las Vegas were initially a problem for his system because they don’t have well defined lane markings.

However, the camera eventually noticed the tire tracks on the road and the tendencies of other cars and within a day, the software could navigate the desert highways.

Charging Ahead

Hotz also brags his technology can do what leaders in the industry, most notably Tesla, can’t: drive autonomously across the Golden Gate Bridge. This short trip posses challenges to most autonomous driving technology because of the lack of lane markings as well as an unusual driving surface. Hotz filmed himself being driven across the bridge while sitting passively in the driver’s seat.

What makes this technology a real game changer is that you don’t have to buy a brand new car to get this advanced driving assistance. If you have a thousand dollars, a compliant car, and the desire to experience this somewhat spooky chauffeur, that’s it. If this technology becomes widespread, it will accelerate the path for self-driving vehicles. Regulators will be forced to act quicker and car makers will be forced to improve their efforts in autonomous driving.

New Opportunities

This also creates an opportunity for car manufacturers who haven’t invested in the development of autonomous driving to create a factory installed version without a huge research and development budget. And for those companies who have dabbled with advanced assist technology, this provides a cost effective option so their models aren’t obsolete the moment they hit the sales floor. This could also provide a bypass technology for aggressive companies like Uber who are pushing the envelope as to what is acceptable in transportation.

We will see this winter if Hotz and comma.ai deliver on their promise of affordable driver assist technology. We will also see how excited consumers are for an aftermarket product that puts your life in its hands. However it unfolds, it should be interesting to watch.

*Jerry Mooney is a Language and Communications Professor at the College of Idaho and the author of History Yoghurt & the Moon. Follow him on Twitter: @JerryMooney

comma.ai official site

Cover Photo: Jamie Street

Sources: CNET, The Verge, Bloomberg, Forbes