Why a hacker is giving away a special code that turns cars into self-driving machines

Why a hacker is giving away a special code that turns cars into self-driving machinesBy Elizabeth Dwoskin

Nov 30 2016


Here is a strategy for start-ups dealing with regulators who might shut down your product: Make it free.

Scrappy self-driving car start-up Comma.ai released a free software kit on Wednesday to help developers learn to build a device that can turn any car into an autonomous vehicle. The year-old company, which is founded by a well-known hacker and backed by prominent Silicon Valley investors, hopes to accelerate the development of self-driving cars while skirting the ire of Washington.

The move raises questions of how the United States should foster innovation for promising technologies that also carry great risks. Experts say self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of accidents of the roadway, most of which are caused by human errors. But Comma’s self-driving kit has only logged roughly 5,000 miles of road time, a number that is effectively a useless barometer for judging safety, said John Simpson, of the safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

The announcement also reflects the types of maneuvering start-ups are increasingly engaging in as they chart a path in heavily regulated sectors of the economy. A wave of companies in areas such as housing, DNA testing and aerospace is weighing whether to work with officials or to follow the playbook of companies such as Uber and Airbnb — asking forgiveness, but not permission, and seeing where the chips fall.

In Comma’s case, the strategy was an end run around the rulemakers.

When Comma.ai’s founder, George Hotz, announced his plan to sell a do-it-yourself self-driving software and hardware kit for $999 at a large industry conference this fall, the tech world was giddy with excitement. While large automakers and technology giants have poured billions into autonomous vehicles, Comma’s tech would have dramatically lowered the bar for entry.

Washington was skeptical: Shortly after the announcement at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Hotz was slapped with a warning letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 27-year-old Hotz — who was the first person to jailbreak an iPhone and whose hacking capabilities earned him a New Yorker profile and an offer from Elon Musk to build Tesla’s automated systems — tweeted out the letter. It asked for detailed information about the safety of the product he said he intended to launch before the end of the year.