Famous hacker George Hotz said he is still planning to take on Tesla after shutting down his self-driving project following a government warning.
Hotz, the founder of self-driving car startup Comma.ai, was working on a self-driving add-on that could be retrofitted to work on different vehicles. The device, called the Comma One, was set to retail at $999 and ship before the end of 2016.
But Hotz shut down the project in late October after receiving a letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that asked the startup to provide information to ensure the product’s safety or face civil penalties of up to $21,000 a day.
“You know the movie ‘300?’ So you have these 300 Spartans and they are going to go up against the million man Persian Army and if they engaged… they would just be obliterated,” Hotz told Business Insider. “And that’s kind of what it would be like if I hired lawyers and built out a policy team to try and stand up against NHTSA.”
Hotz, who is known for breaking into the original iPhone and Playstation 3, said he is currently talking to OEMs about shipping an aftermarket product based on the Comma One’s software that could compete with Tesla.
“Once we want to ship a product we have to deal with regulators, we have to deal with liability, but there are a lot of companies out there that have experience with this,” he said. “Instead of us trying to bring this all in-house, we would like to work with a company and help them get these sort of things out to as many people as possible.”
The ‘Android’ of Autopilot
Hotz’s reaction to the NHTSA letter was questionable to some.
Comma.ai has $3.1 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, so there were experts on hand that could have helped navigate NHTSA’ demands.
Hotz had said at TechCrunch Disrupt that the product, that he claimed was “on par” with Tesla Autopilot, was ready to ship by the end of 2016. That led some to wonder whether the Comma One was actually canceled because it wasn’t on track to ship by the end of the year.
When asked whether Hotz was ready to deliver the product prior to receiving the letter, he said “it would have been tight.”
“So our plan, and I said this at TechCrunch Disrupt, it was never to ship a mass market product before the end of the year,” Hotz continued. “But we would have it shipped to a few people [like] early supporters.”
A month after shutting down the project, Hotz open sourced the code to the system so researchers could build the hardware themselves.
“Is it finished? No, it’s still beta, but the thing we were going to ship was largely going to be beta as well,” he said. “I heard, ‘Comma AI is the new Theranos.’ Really? I’ve been incredibly open, I’ve told you everything we are doing, now you can go download our technology on Github.”
Hotz said he is currently working on improving the software and has been in talks with OEMs about creating an aftermarket product, but declined to say who he is speaking with.
“Smaller OEMs, particularly Chinese OEMs, seem very excited about what we are doing and about potentially building cars that run on the Comma platform,” he said.
When Hotz announced he was cancelling the project, he mentioned that he was in Shenzhen, China. But he said that was just coincidental. “I was just in China, I kind of just put that there,” he said.
Hotz said that he still plans on competing directly with Tesla Autopilot by building the Android equivalent of the semi-autonomous system.
“iOS is a walled garden that only runs on one model, just like Autopilot is a walled garden that only runs on one manufacturer’s car,” he said. “Android on the other hand runs on many different manufacturer’s phones. That’s where we want to be.”
Hotz has an interesting relationship with Tesla CEO Elon Musk. A 2015 Bloomberg profile about Hotz’s self-driving car plans mentioned an email between Hotz and Musk. According to Bloomberg, Musk offered Hotz a “multimillion-dollar bonus” to build a product in-house that could replace Mobileye as a supplier.
Following the Bloomberg profile, Musk wrote in a blog post that the article was inaccurate and that Tesla found it “extremely unlikely” Hotz could produce the autonomous driving system.
Hotz has vocally undermined Mobileye in the past. At Tech Crunch Disrupt, Hotz referred to Mobileye as “jokers” for working “with regulators to lower the safety ratings of cars that do not have a Mobileye chip in them.” Hotz told Business Insider that he has shorted Mobileye’s stock.
Tesla and Mobileye terminated their relationship following a fatal accident while a Tesla was driving in Autopilot. Mobileye said Tesla was “pushing the envelope in terms of safety” following the crash and ensuing break with Tesla.
Competing with Tesla
The self-driving car space is becoming increasingly crowded and that could spell trouble for smaller startups like Comma.ai.
Google announced Tuesday it was spinning out its self-driving car unit, named Waymo, to get its self-driving tech out to the public sooner. The Information’s Amir Efrati reported that Google is aiming to use its partnership with Fiat Chrysler to release a line of self-driving taxis by the end of 2017.
Uber, which has self-driving pilot programs in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, is also aiming to launch self-driving cars on its ride-hailing network. Even Tesla has plans to use it autonomous technology in a ride-sharing setting.
Hotz said Comma.ai is banking on the idea that people will still want semi-autonomous tech in their cars before fully self-driving taxis come to fruition.
“Why are these people so uncreative that they keep doing the same business model that only one of them can really succeed at,” Hotz said. “If you’re trying to build ride-sharing networks, it’s not like they can all succeed.”
But Tesla, of course, is using its tech outside of a ride-sharing setting. And even automakers like General Motors that plan on using autonomous technology in a ride-sharing setting are still exploring putting it in personal vehicles as well.
Hotz still thinks he can compete on price, though.
“A car is $25,000. Imagine you can buy a $1,000 add-on kit to the car you already have versus buying like a new Model 3 Tesla? It looks like a pretty good value proposition,” he said.
Hotz may have a genuine advantage of he can launch a product that can make any car semi-autonomous, regardless of who made it. But he will need help to get there.
“In order to really get this to the masses, and our slogan is ghost riding for the masses, we need partners,” he said. “We need to collaborate with people who are good at working with regulators.”