Testing the First DIY Self-Driving Car

Track days with the self-driving genius George Hotz.

George Hutz
Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

There’s no fucking way this can work, I said under my breath.

I wasn’t nervous. I was sick—ill with excitement and anticipation and too many Blueberry Clif bars dug out of someone’s trunk. My smoked-out sunglasses were streaked with the same sweat dripping into my eyes from my helmet’s damp foam liner, the sweat of whomever had lent me their Medium instead of the XL I needed. I could barely see. It was ninety degrees in the sun, one hundred inside George Hotz’s dusty white Acura ILX, and I didn’t care.

This is automotive history, being made in real-time.

“I think we should test it out,” she said breathlessly. “We’ve got helmets.”

Helmets? Mine felt like a pressure cooker.

She was Kirsten Korosec, a writer from Fortune, and we were among a handful of journalists, venture capitalists, and fifty-odd Autonomous Driving engineers roasting over Memorial Day Weekend under clear skies at Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, California. It's a big weekend for cars. After all, the eyes of the automotive world are on the Indy 500, or the Monaco Grand Prix, or the Nurburgring 24. But the event of actual import is none of those.

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

The really important event is taking place here, on the wrong side of the Mendocino mountains, and this small band of people are among the only ones in the world who realize the day's seminal importance. It is the world’s first-ever Autonomous Track Day, quietly unfolding like the Wright Brother's Kitty Hawk on Thunderhill’s West Circuit.

“I also think we should test it out,” I said, ready to puke.

Of course there are spies on the opposite side of Thunderhill, where some bike riders are watching a motorcycle track day. They are easy to identify. Willows is a town whose sole outward purpose is to temporarily house, feed and serve those visiting the race track. The spies? No one goes to a motorcycle race in slacks and clean, ironed, unbranded T-shirts or Polos. It just isn’t done. Not in Norcal. Not in America. Could they be tourists? Willows is three hours from San Francisco in holiday traffic, and the TripAdvisor "Top 10 List of Things To Do" only contains three things, including Thunderhill. And yet there were tourists. German tourists. English tourists. Asian tourists. Some with fake name tags—cheap stickers from Walmart filled out with thick Sharpies. All with suspiciously incisive questions for the engineers from the fourteen official entries.

"Hey George," I repeat to Hotz. " I think we should test it out."

“Of course you do,” said Hotz, slightly exasperated. He was proud of what he’d already done, and was eager to show off what he could do.

For the price of a late-model Acura, some off-the-shelf hardware and many sleepless nights, Hotz has accomplished what has cost the major automakers hundreds of millions of dollars.

It was Sunday, May 29th, Day 2 of SelfRacingCars.com, and I was lucky enough to be shadowing Hotz—the one man it seemed everyone had come to meet, observe, pitch, impress, beg, compare notes with, and crib from—as he attempted to get his self-driving Acura around Thunderhill’s West circuit at 100% autonomy.

Only one other team—the AutonomouStuff/Polysync team—was even trying. Everyone else was just “gathering data” for research purposes, or future attempts, or as a euphemism for not being ready, or even knowing how to get ready. As a group, everyone was friends. Until they were off the record.

How many unofficial entries? No one knew, but they sure were well dressed and equipped with sunscreen. There was only one official entry from a major manufacturer: a gorgeous Audi RS7 in black and white livery—festooned with the most beautifully integrated conformal roof sensors and antennae—which sat idle and sealed virtually the entire weekend, like a stormtrooper on vacation.

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

Not so Hotz’s Acura, whose myriad sensors were screwed, bolted or duct-taped to the roof rack and front and rear bumpers, and whose trunk full of electronics remained open when it wasn’t in motion.

I came to Thunderhill to meet Hotz. There are a lot of heavy hitters here, but everyone knew Hotz is the weekend’s center of gravity. I didn’t want to like him. I wanted to poke holes in the mythology of Hotz. I wanted to find the other alleged geniuses, the ones who would balance out the Hotz mythos, but in a parking lot full of brilliance, Hotz stands alone like a flare in a basement.

Why? Because for the price of a late-model Acura, some off-the-shelf hardware and many sleepless nights, Hotz and the earnest band of international merry men in his company, Comma.ai, have accomplished what has cost the major automakers hundreds of millions of dollars. Hotz has built a self-driving car in less than a year, and he will tell you with absolute confidence what’s coming next.

“Comma.ai is about winning,” he deadpans. “We’re going to win self-driving cars, and we’re going to build a kit that you can install in your car, and make it self-driving, for under a thousand dollars, by the end of the year. You're going to be able to install it yourself—if you can set up a piece of IKEA furniture, which I know not everyone can.”

Details and model year cutoff? To be determined. No equivocation. No dissembling.

“Christmas?” I ask.

“The end of the year,” he says. “Don’t take away our extra days.”

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

Can he deliver on time? Does it matter? Fortunes and empires have been built on less. Consider Theranos, the blood-testing company whose CEO won’t stop raiding the Gattaca wardrobe closet. Oh, she looks the part, but thirteen years and $400 million later, the empress has no clothes, because she and the company are almost certainly frauds.

Now consider Tesla. Musk has never met a deadline, but he knows how to manage, tease, twist, dance around, meet and massage expectations. Like Steve Jobs before him, Musk knows that if you’re in the widget business, eventually you have to deliver. If you deliver magic, all is forgiven until the next manipulation.

Hotz? So far he’s show and go. So far. The full kitty, on a budget. He’s the kid who hacked the iphone. He had a prototype Self-Driving Car driving itself around San Francisco last December, before a single investor dollar had been raised. Then Ashlee Vance broke the story in Bloomberg, then the Cali DMV mistakenly sent him a cease-and-desist for testing on city streets, then the angels arrived. He’s a 26-year old from New Jersey who sounds it, like the kids I grew up with and still know, just smarter.

He’s the opposite of every other startup guy I’ve ever seen or heard. There were no Harvard dining halls or deck shoes for Hotz. He’s funny, blunt, utterly convinced, and totally convincing. He’s Steve Jobs with actual coding skill and a sense of humor. Musk, without the weirdness. Zuck, but making a product you can actually hold in your hand. He’s opaque and yet accessible, rough around the edges, lacking an inner monologue yet totally self-aware, he’s everyman’s genius.

He’s the Ferris Bueller of tech.

As of today Comma.ai has raised $3.1M, and Hotz’s staff of five — all but one hilariously boyish and under thirty — have shown up at Thunderhill wearing heavy black cotton T-shirts with a huge comma on the front and comma.ai on the back. They travel in his orbit, but separated from him each become both a distinct subset of Comma and an adjunct to their glorious leader. Four out of the six are housemates, and there is no apparent chain of command. Despite the cult of personality, Hotz has no objection to any one of them speaking openly on the company’s — if not his — behalf, even in the presence of obvious spies.

“What would we possibly have to hide?” said Chief Machine Learning Intern Eder Santana to a group of Asian tourists on the morning of the first day. “Why even bother?”

Why bother? Nothing was at stake, per se. There was no race, per se. SelfRacingCars.com organizer/angel investor Joshua Schachter had no idea who would come or what was going to happen, and yet fortunes were at stake and everyone was racing. Racing to meet some ephemeral goal that would lead to the big cashout, defined by what happened to Cruise.

What was Cruise? A company that developed a $10k rooftop Autonomous Driving retrofit kit specifically for Audi A4s, that went dark without shipping a single unit, whose test car crashed into a parked Prius, then got acquired by GM in early 2016 for $1B.

“GM got ripped off,” says Hotz.

You don’t need to be Nostradamus to see why Hotz would think so. Comma is going down a similar developmental path, while the manufacturers circle, looking for that thing that will be easier to buy than build, and if Hotz can get a product to market, he’ll be worth more than $1B. Maybe a lot more.

Day 1 hadn’t gone well, or maybe it had. Although Hotz’s brand-new $50,000 GPS unit was defective, his Acura had completed a lap 99% autonomously, but for Hotz that was the same as 1%. A self-driving car is either fully autonomous or it isn’t. If it isn’t, it’s semi-autonomous, it’s been done, it’s just the tip, it’s a cop out. Which is why, Saturday after the track closed, just after dusk, I spotted a white Acura move haltingly through the parking lot of the Willows Holiday Inn Express where I was staying, and I knew Hotz wasn’t.

The Acura stopped, then it moved, then stopped again.

I pulled up to see what was going on.

“Debugging,” said Hotz.

“Can I ride along?” I said, trying not to show the desperation in my voice.

“Tomorrow, said Hotz. “If we can get this $50k GPS working.”

“Can you do it without the GPS?”

“Ask me tomorrow.”

I was rooting for him. But I knew a lot of people weren’t.

Find out what what happens on the big lap in Part 2, coming soon.

Alex Roy, best known for breaking the Cannonball Run record in 2007, is author of The Driver and Editor-at-Large for The Drive. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.