It seems like self-driving cars have been five years away for at least 15 years. But now, major players in the industry—like Google spinoff Waymo, GM self-driving unit Cruise, and upstart Zoox—are promising that fleets of fully autonomous taxis are just about to roll out.
"It's a scam," says George Hotz, the 30-year-old hacker-slash-entrepreneur best known as the first person to jailbreak the original iPhone when he was 17. "No one's close."
Hotz points out that every system on the road today requires the driver to pay attention at all times and be ready to take over. He says that companies touting fully self-driving cars without human safety monitors—and sometimes without steering wheels or pedals—are offering nothing more than a "press demo."
Hotz started Comma.ai in 2015 to upend what he views as Big Tech's wasteful and shortsighted approach to self-driving vehicles. Instead of building specialized cars that rely on expensive sensors and follow laser-mapped routes, Comma.ai has created an autonomous driving system that runs on a smartphone, works on most vehicles sold in America, and requires no additional hardware.
The company's first truly all-in-one device, the $999 Comma 2, packs a modified smartphone and other hardware into one slim plastic casing, which Hotz 3D-prints in the garage of Comma.ai's office in San Diego. Mount it to your windshield, plug it into your car's OBD-II port, and Comma's OpenPilot software can take the wheel. The Comma 2 uses the phone's cameras and taps into the built-in RADAR and drive-by-wire systems contained in cars built after 2012, automatically turning the steering wheel and operating the gas and brakes.
Hotz says his company has spent $8.1 million thus far and is profitable, while the big players in the self-driving space have spent billions without offering an economically viable product. While his competitors vie to dominate the market with proprietary technology and ridesharing platforms, Hotz is focused on building an open-source, decentralized ecosystem for driverless technology.
When I first spoke with Hotz in the summer of 2017, he predicted that by 2020, cars would take their own wheels for large stretches without humans paying attention and that by 2022 they would achieve full self-driving ability in limited areas.
"None of that's true," he says now. "Profitable robo-taxis are still a decade away."
Hotz thinks the automated vehicle industry has surrendered to what he views as the vices of modern Silicon Valley, focusing on growth and hype rather than delivering truly innovative products. To find out why he's soured on the space and to take the Comma 2 for a test drive, I caught up with Hotz at the Airbnb Comma.ai rented off the Las Vegas Strip during CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the world.
Produced by Justin Monticello. Camera by Monticello, John Osterhoudt, and Jeffrey Cummings. Graphics by Lex Villena. Music by The 126ers, Matt Harris, MK2, Quincas Moreira, Jingle Punks, and Silent Partner.