The Cancelled Comma One Would Have Embarrassed The Car Industry

Prediction: There will be a Comma Two.

Comma One
Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

George Hotz—the infamous hacker known for unlocking the iPhone and reverse engineering the Playstation 3—has cancelled his first product, the Comma One, an aftermarket Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) he claimed would replicate Tesla Autopilot for $1000.

Hotz's initial tweets suggested his move was in response to an inquiry from NHTSA, stating that he "would much rather spend life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers," and that Comma.ai would be "exploring other products and markets." Twenty-four hours after the cancellation, Hotz called me from China. Asked if he was genuinely intimidated by NHTSA's letter, he said, "I've got two words for you: stealth mode."

"Stealth mode" sure doesn't sound like he's backing down.

Does anyone really believe Hotz would give up with $3M+ in the bank and VC firm Andreessen Horowitz behind him? Hotz could have responded to NHTSA. He just didn't want to. With a lean operation, a growing pool of crowdsourced data and seemingly unlimited swagger, Hotz just bought himself press, time and additional mythos. Three things every founder prays for in bed at night — courtesy of the NHTSA.

Most importantly, Hotz has a working prototype — which I recently witnessed in action — that was functionally superior and theoretically safer than the ten legacy manufacturer systems I tested just last week.

The Comma One wasn't vaporware. It was a thorn in the side of the entire automotive industry. Proof that American ingenuity can still come out of a garage. With Hotz’s bluster backed up by real technology, it's NHTSA that remains behind the curve in evaluating the myriad different technologies — let alone the behaviors — lurking behind the vague nomenclature used to describe Autonomous Driving and Self-Driving Cars.

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com
Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

What Was The Comma One?

The Comma One was an aftermarket unit meant to replace both the rear-view mirror and cruise control systems in select Honda and Acura models. Fitted with two cameras, wifi, a cellular connection, a 5.5” screen and wirelessly upgradeable via Comma.ai’s crowdsourced Chffr/Dash platform, it was the core of a more capable ADAS suite than what you find in most luxury cars. The unit slotted into the rear-view mirror harness, and connected to the vehicle’s CANBus, which provided power and access to the car’s forward facing radar, steering, braking and throttle. It also remapped the steering wheel mounted buttons to direct what Hotz described as “a really fancy cruise control.”

The system worked, sometimes better than everything on the market. In some ways it surpassed Tesla, resolving “transition” issues that have so far stymied major manufacturers and the government. It's those transitions that are the hinge upon which all semi-autonomous driving technology will live or die. Fully self-driving cars — Level 4/5 — are three to ten years away, depending on whether you believe Elon Musk, or the rest of the industry. In the meantime, we’re stuck with semi-autonomous features whose floor is loosely defined by the driver assistance technologies rolling out in luxury cars and whose ceiling is established Tesla Autopilot 8 — undeclared but at or slightly above Level 2.

Lane Keeping Assistance (LKAS) functionality is at the core of ADAS, and accidents from overconfidence in LKAS are what everyone is trying to prevent. The little meaningful criticism of Tesla Autopilot (with its state-of-the-art “Autosteer") is rooted in what critics deem insufficient transition warnings: the moment at which the system disengages, causing a potentially unready driver to take a control at an inopportune moment. While that system has everyone's eyes on it, the government isn’t going after the generally lousy LKAS installed aboard just about everything else on the market.

Out in the real world it’s clear that not all ADAS is created equal.

Hands on or off, the Comma One was an excellent semi-autonomous driving suite — easily meeting the definition of Level 2, like Tesla — with steering and braking behaviors more conservative (and therefore safer) than any ADAS on the market.

Compared to Tesla and the Comma One, the OEM systems are worrisome, from performance to behavior to UI to safety itself. Transitions? Most systems on the market don’t tell you when they’re on, let alone when they're shutting off. And while Tesla’s cutting edge Autopilot is years ahead of the OEMs in situational awareness, it's only modestly better in the transition warning department.

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

The Comma One possessed one feature no one else had: a real transition warning system. As the system approached its limit, it beeped to warn the driver. Hotz claimed visual warnings — potentially even a meter — would be built into the Comma One before launch. Gradated warnings were clear, and the first time and only time they went off, I didn't have to ask what they meant.

That's innovation.

Where is the industry on this? If Hotz is right, and the industry “can’t release any technology less than five years old,” then everyone but Tesla is years away. More troubling still, if he's wrong, then the legacy manufacturers are omitting a critical safety feature.

So Why Did Hotz Really Cancel The Comma One?

Speculation, but here goes: Hotz never intended to release more than a limited run of units to beta testers this year, and has said so several times. Annoyed, insulted and remembering the Sony lawsuit launched because of his hacking of the Playstation, he decided to treat the DOT/NHTSA letter of inquiry as a blessing in disguise.

NHTSA? Meet Hotz, master of public relations. Hotz? Meet NHTSA.

If Hotz had kept quiet, he might have completed a prototype before the government inquiry, which wasn’t actually onerous but almost certainly premature. He can now claim to be the target of unfair scrutiny by a government still incapable of defining the terms of a discussion that affects us all. Now, Hotz has as much time as he needs. Money? We'll see. As I said, it's a lean operation.

Alex Roy/TheDrive.com
Alex Roy/TheDrive.com

Final speculation: there’s a reason it was called the Comma One. Where there's a Comma One, there's likely to be a Comma Two — and something tells me it will be similar to its predecessor, just better. And it's likely to be a product we don’t hear about it until it’s ready, if only Hotz can keep his mouth shut.

Stealth Mode? Hotz has surprised us before.

Alex Roy is an Editor-at-Large for The Drive, author of The Driver, set the 2007 Transcontinental “Cannonball Run” Record in a BMW M5 in 31 hours & 4 minutes, and has set multiple "Cannonball" endurance driving records in Europe & the United States in the EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes. You may follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.