“Don’t believe everything you read in the media.” - George Hotz, 11/29/2016
George Hotz — the infamous hacker known for unlocking the iPhone, reverse engineering the Playstation 3, turning down a job offer from Elon Musk, and almost launching “the world’s fanciest cruise control”, A.K.A. the Comma One, an aftermarket Advanced Driver Assistance System (ADAS) he claimed would replicate Tesla Autopilot for $1000 — is back.
Is he BACK back? He’s certainly up to something, because at 1358hr EST today he tweeted the following, along with a video we’re going to analyze:
The first question was obvious, and so was the answer, at least to anyone who’s spent time with him:
I never believed George Hotz ever cancelled the Comma One. Did anyone really believe Hotz would give up because of a single fairly innocuous letter from NHTSA? That a startup with $3M+ funding from VCs Andreesen Horowitz and several very notable angels would just stop development on such a promising product? That Hotz — whose hilariously salty presentation style is rife with demeaning remarks about competitors’ lack of "swagger", and who said GM got ripped off in its $1B acquisition of Comma rival Cruise Automation — is remotely intimidated by anyone?
I’ve spent some time with Hotz, and got a ride in his Acura ILX with a Comma One prototype just before before the so-called cancellation. Thirty minutes on the 101 made it clear; the Comma One’s Lane Keeping was far superior to anything currently on the market except for Tesla Autopilot 8, on the very same road where I tested the latest Mercedes Drivepilot. It was certainly as good as or better than the October 2015 release of Autopilot 7.
In terms of transition quality — measured by the length and clarity of the system’s engagement and disengagement warnings — the Comma One was the best I’ve observed.
Actually, it was the only one I’ve observed. Anything would be better than nothing, which is where the rest of the industry is. Even Tesla’s impressive Autopilot 8 doesn’t actively warn you when it’s about to reach its limits. The hands-off warning intervals don’t count. The Comma One prototype included an audible warning system for when the vehicle was approaching its lane keeping threshold. The visual component was not yet complete, but Hotz suggested it might be a meter.
Half the criticism of Tesla Autopilot has been related to its transitions, which are best inferred by experienced users. Everyone besides Tesla is stuck at home base. But, however much I’m an Autopilot fan, Hotz’s transition system is a unique (and almost certainly temporary) leap even over Tesla in this area.
So why would Hotz possibly cancel the Comma One?
The answer is...he didn’t. Or it sure looks like he didn’t.
All you have to do is watch the linked YouTube video. Let’s compare pictures of the Comma One from today’s video with some I took two months ago:
The orange bars indicate that the system is active. They’re deliberately large, for testing purposes. The green lines are lane borders. The purple line indicates proper path. The dark blue deviation indicates a straight path. Speed is in the top right.
Here’s another shot from two months ago:
Now let’s check out a screenshot from today’s video:
The orange engagement bars are gone, which means the system wasn’t active, or it was, and the new half-height yellow bar on the left has replaced them. Or perhaps the yellow bar is the transition warning bar? It’s about 65% of the height of the red box in the beginning of the video, but slowly drops to 50%.
The green lane lines are there, but each are now bracketed by secondary, dimmer lines. Could the inner ones indicate the lane departure thresholds, and some relationship with the transition system?
The purple path line is there, with no apparent deviation path. Speed is still in the top right, but now the speed limit is in the top left, suggesting some relationship between speed limits and the Comma’s behavior. The top center displays the distance to the nearest car in the same lane, along with the speed differential.
This isn’t the same release I saw two months ago.
Oh wait, what’s this?
Looks like the gauge cluster of an Acura ILX, just like Hotz’s test car:
George Hotz hasn’t stopped development. It appears he’s merely been in stealth mode, just like he said, and given how rarely he tweets or posts, I’m guessing that he’s going to announce something.
Could it be a Comma 1.5? A Comma Two? That he’s responded to NHTSA favorably and the cancellation story was a PR stunt? That he was just trying to buy time?
Could it be that his trip to China — during which he announced the “cancellation” — yielded some crazy deal with a Chinese manufacturer, and that Comma.ai has just gotten its first order, or just been acquired?
UPDATE: Guess what? As I was writing this, Hotz announced a press conference for 1000hr PST tomorrow, November 30th.
I can’t wait to see what he has to say.
Alex Roy, investor, entrepreneur, President of Europe By Car, Editor-at-Large for The Drive, and 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.