A 26-yr-old hacker can make a self-driving car

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A 26-yr-old hacker can make a self-driving car

George Hotz, the latest Silicon Valley startup founder to get a multimillion-dollar check from venture capitalists, went for a ride recently in a Rolls-Royce around San Francisco.

At 26, Hotz thinks he could teach the legendary vehicle a few tricks. Braking should be smoother, he says. Accelerations could be gentler. The vehicle should run each time as if the best limo driver in the world was behind the wheel. Hotz’s solution is to get rid of the driver. His startup, Comma, has received $3.1m from well-known investment firm Andreessen Horowitz to make conversion kits that turn normal cars into semi-self-driving cars. Hotz plans to start selling these by the end of the year for Honda, Acura and potentially other brands.

For many consumers, automated vehicles still feel like science fiction and the province of giant research labs at Google, Uber and General Motors (GM). But there’s increasing evidence that many drivers’ first interaction with a self-driving vehicle will be one engineered by a small startup. “We are going to win self-driving cars,” Hotz said in a recent interview. “The bar is  low.” That might seem like bold talk from a twentysomething who quit his day job at an artificial intelligence company last summer. But Hotz isn’t shy of attention. He recently challenged Tesla founder Elon Musk to a race to build the first vehicle that can navigate San Francisco’s tourist-packed Golden Gate Bridge on its own. Musk hasn’t responded. “I think we can maybe build better self-driving cars,” Hotz says. “He can build a better rocket.”

He’s had some success. In December, Hotz made a name for himself when he showed Bloomberg Businessweek how he made an Acura drive itself down the highway. Hotz had hacked the car’s onboard computer. He then added a camera and a radar. Suddenly, the vehicle was cruising down Bay Area freeways as Hotz sat in the driver seat, his hands not on the steering wheel. The video prompted a cease and desist letter from the California department of motor vehicles (DMV), which is still working its way through rules for self-driving vehicles.

Hotz says the matter has since been cleared up, as Comma’s technology is only meant for highway driving. By the end of the year, Comma wants to sell consumers car-automation conversion kits for less than $1,000. Hotz is tight-lipped about what those will involve, but they will at least require some sort of alterations to a car’s onboard computer and hardware for the car to determine what’s going on around it.

For that to work, automakers either need to open up their cars’ systems to Hotz or, more likely, Hotz needs to figure out how to hack into them. That’s because many carmakers, including General Motors, Toyota and Tesla, are spending millions on developing the same technology. Last month, GM bought Cruise, a startup similar to Comma, for about $1bn.

So far, Hotz has only disclosed how he hacked an Acura, yet he believes he can use the same techniques to hack other cars made by Acura’s parent company, Honda.Car automation has become increasingly democratised as much of the hardware behind the technology has fallen in price and the machine-learning techniques have been open-sourced.

Hotz believes his vehicles can beat the competition if he can teach them to be smarter than others. He is particularly proud that his Acura’s artificial intelligence learned that if it is driving alongside a bike lane with a moving cyclist, it should move a little more to the left. Or as he put it: “The car is starting to do some fancy stuff.”

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