The iPhone hacker-turned-driver-assist-developer allowed us to test out the most recent version of his aftermarket driver-assist technology, which now recognizes red lights. Was it superior to Super Cruise or Autopilot?
George Hotz only desires to create robots. The Comma 3, the newest assisted driving hardware from his business, Comma.ai, demonstrates the desire.
He describes the two forward-facing cameras to me as having “two eyes.” He then raises the gadget so I can see that the cameras are placed roughly at the same distance apart as human eyes.
It has a mouth for speaking, Hotz continues. It can inhale air to keep itself cool. We are constructing a human head.
You might recall Hotz from when he jailbroke an iPhone at the youthful age of 17 under the hacker alias “geohot.” He’s been a pain in Elon Musk’s side ever since, criticizing Tesla’s Autopilot system. And by breaking into a PlayStation 3, he displeased Sony. Sony filed a lawsuit, but later dropped it in exchange for Hotz’s promise to never again tamper with the company’s hardware.
Since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been closely monitoring him, Hotz almost stopped producing the Comma unit entirely in 2016. He resigned from his position as CEO of Comma and now describes himself as a marketing intern. (He also recently worked for a short time as an intern at Musk’s Twitter, but left after a few weeks.)
Hotz has made no secret of his distaste for in-car assistance technologies and has long wished to “make driving cold.” I’m preparing to get a demo of the most recent version to see how laid-back it can be.
The Comma 3 is smaller than an iPad but bigger than a phone. The Openpilot assisted-driving software is pre-downloaded into the device, in contrast to previous incarnations. What good is a head without any brains, after all? The only steps required of drivers are to install the system to the windshield, run the wire to the CAN bus, and plug it in. There, it activates the lane-centering and adaptive cruise control features of the vehicle, cranking them up to eleven.
The hands-free driving assistance provided by the Comma 3 is superior than that provided by legacy manufacturers. The technology is put inside a Kia EV6 for a test drive in Las Vegas. To prevent me from dozing off or taking my eyes off the road, the Comma 3 has a rear-facing camera pointed at me. If I do, it gives me a visual warning first, then an auditory one if I continue to ignore it or don’t want to wake up.
The six-inch display screen shows the road ahead, the system’s top speed, the car’s speed, and an overlay of the lane lines so I know what it’s viewing. If dash cameras are more your style, the device also functions as one, recording up to 1TB of video. Although it has GPS capability, it is not yet capable of independently following those directions.
I simply press the steering-wheel-mounted adaptive cruise control button to get going. It initially seems quite similar to GM’s Super Cruise or Ford’s BlueCruise. The system tracks traffic with ease, makes soft curves gently, changes lanes on its own, and generally does not make a lot of noise when I take my hands off the wheel. However, Ford and GM’s technologies are only usable by drivers on pre-mapped roadways. The Comma 3 works well almost everywhere.
This is because it receives all of its guidance from the two sophisticated cameras. It simply begins to drive after observing the lane markings, the speed of the nearby vehicles, a few traffic cones, and even one errant bike. Even though I keep an eye on things and am always prepared to take over, the Comma-controlled Kia manages just well on its own.
The ability to discern traffic lights is the largest improvement over the Comma 2. I am the first in line at a red light a couple times while driving. When I failed to accomplish so on my own driving test when I was 16 and received a 97 percent rather than a perfect score, the Comma 3 senses the red light and stops the car smoothly, front tires in line with the turn curbing. When the light turns green, it holds the automobile in place until it moves off slowly.
One of the few vehicles on the road today that can stop at red lights is the Comma 3. According to the company’s website, Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system “identifies stop signs and traffic lights and automatically slows your car to a stop on approach, with your active supervision.” However, despite what Musk claims, this beta driver-assist program doesn’t enable fully autonomous capabilities.
When the car in front of me makes a right turn into a petrol station, I get another “oh wow” experience. Other native adaptive cruise control systems slow down for turning vehicles before decelerating until the leading vehicle has entirely left the lane. The fact that this is not how people drive makes me yell, “Go, you idiot computer!” When the turning vehicle is mostly outside of the lane, the Comma 3 accelerates correctly. It feels much more natural than before.
Even navigating a few narrow chicanes seems very routine. The Comma 3 provides a much more natural course, cutting the curves ever-so-slightly while still staying within the lane markings, as opposed to keeping the car exactly centered in the lane.
That does not imply that the Comma 3 is faultless. During my test drive, it did detach once at a somewhat perplexing intersection. The sun is reflecting off the painted lines on the pavement where the light is located in the center of a curve in the road. It’s difficult to criticize the robot because the human driver, me, is a little puzzled.
Even yet, the Comma 3 does not enable your automobile to drive itself. I still need to pay alert and be prepared to take the wheel at any moment even when my hands are off the wheel. A red left-turn arrow has me stopped, but when it turns green, the car doesn’t move.
Hotz tells me that the system is terrified and confirms his belief that it resembles a human being. However, the turn is initiated by the car with only a small amount of input from the steering wheel. Yes, driving assistance. No, not self-driving.
More than 200 automobiles, some with a model year as recent as 2014, are compatible with the Comma 3. According to Comma.ai, its system performs particularly effectively with recent Hyundai and Toyota vehicles. One costs $1,499 on the Comma.ai website, plus $200 for the wire harness customized to your car if you want greater memory capacity for video.
Five thousand of the units, which have been available for roughly a year and a half, are currently in the possession of drivers. According to Hotz, a Chinese automaker will produce a vehicle with his technology integrated into it within the next two years. What Hotz and his business have in store for the future is not yet known.
This is not the game plan going forward, he claims. Although I believe we will sell these goods for a couple hundred million dollars over the next five years, my long-term goals are much more than that. You really need a chauffeur, though. A humanoid robot that can operate a car and sit in the driver’s seat is what you really desire.
In this example, I’ve already seen the Comma head, and Hotz claims to have a basic Comma body. It remains to be seen if Comma.ai can create robots that are fully capable of driving, vacuuming, or even cooking. I can definitely say that the professional arc of a hacker-turned-robot-builder is interesting.