George Hotz wants to ‘make driving chill’ with next-gen Comma 3 hands-free driver assist
George Hotz just wants to build robots. You can see the desire in Comma 3, the next-generation assisted hardware from his company, Comma.ai.
“It has two eyes,” he tells me, pointing to the two cameras ahead. He then holds the device up to his face so I can see that the cameras are about as far apart as a set of eyes on a human.
Hotz continues, “There’s a mouth to speak. It can breathe to cool itself… We are building a human head.”
“We’re building a human head.”
You may remember Hotz when he used the hacker name “geohot” to jailbreak an iPhone at the tender age of 17. Since then, he’s been a thorn in Elon Musk’s side, dissing Tesla’s Autopilot technology. And he’s pissed at Sony for breaking a PlayStation 3. (Sony sued, but later dropped the suit on the condition that Hotz agree never to tamper with its hardware again.)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been keeping a close eye on him, to the point where Hotz was nearly stopped from creating the comma unit in 2016. He fired himself as CEO of Comma and now claims he’s just an intern marketing. (He also took a last job as an intern at Musk’s Twitter, but left after a few weeks.)
Hotz is open about his dislike of native driver assistance systems, and he’s always wanted to “make driving smooth.” I’m about to take a demo on this latest iteration to see how cool it can be.
The six-inch touchscreen shows the road ahead with an overlay of lane markings so you know what you’re seeing. Image: comma
The device also acts as a camera, recording up to 1 TB of video. Image: comma
The Comma 3 is bigger than a cell phone but smaller than an iPad. Unlike past iterations, the Openpilot assisted driving software is already downloaded to the device. After all, what good is a head without a brain? Drivers just need to mount the system on the windshield, run the wire to the vehicle’s CAN bus and plug it in. There, it accesses the car’s adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping technology, turning them up to 11.
Comma 3’s hands-free driving assist technology is better than anything you can get from an older manufacturer. In a demo car in Las Vegas, the system was installed in a Kia EV6. There’s a 3-point rear camera pointed at me to make sure I don’t take my eyes off the road or fall asleep. If I do, it issues a visual warning, then an audible warning if I still refuse to pay attention — or wake up.
The Comma 3 hands-free driving assistance technology is better than anything you can get from an older manufacturer
The six-inch display screen shows the road ahead, an overlay of lane markings so you know what you’re seeing, the car’s speed and the system’s top speed. The device also acts as a camera, recording up to 1 TB of video, if that’s your jam. It’s GPS-enabled, though it won’t follow those directions on its own.
To start, simply press the adaptive cruise control button on the Kia steering wheel. At first, it’s not too different from GM’s Super Cruise or Ford’s BlueCruise. I can take my hands off the wheel and the system follows traffic with ease, taking smooth turns smoothly, changing lanes on its own and generally not causing too much fuss. However, drivers can only use the systems from Ford and GM on designated routes. Comma 3 is good almost everywhere.
That’s because it takes all the direction from two high-tech cameras. He sees the lane markings, the pace of other cars around him, a few traffic cones, even an unfair cyclist and just… drives. Of course, I keep my eyes up and ready to take over at any time, but the comma-controlled Kia is doing well on its own.
The biggest improvement from Comma 2 is the ability to recognize traffic lights. Several times during my drive, I am first in line at a red light. The Comma 3 sees the red light and stops the car smoothly, the front tires comply with cornering braking, something I failed to do in my driving test when I was 16 and walked away with a 97 per cent instead of a result perfect. She holds the car at a complete stop until the light turns green, then she gently speeds away.
The biggest improvement from Comma 2 is the ability to recognize traffic lights
Comma 3 is the only system that can stop at red lights. Tesla approaches, identifying a traffic light but not recognizing the color of the light. Tesla’s Full Self-Driving system, a beta driver-assistance program that doesn’t enable fully autonomous capabilities, no matter what Musk says, will stop at any light unless signaled by the driver that it’s OK to proceed .
Another “oh wow” moment is when the car in front of me turns right at a gas station. Other adaptive cruise control systems slow down the turning car, then wait until the lead car is completely out of the lane before starting to accelerate again. That’s not the way people drive and it always leaves me yelling “go away you stupid computer!” The Comma 3 understands this well, accelerating when the car it’s turning is mostly out of its lane. It’s a much more natural experience.
Even driving through some tight chicanes feels pretty mundane. Instead of keeping the car squarely centered in the lane, comma 3 delivers a much more natural path, cutting corners less and less while still staying within the lane markings.
That doesn’t mean comma 3 is perfect. It disconnected once in my test at a rather confusing junction. The light is in the middle of a bend in the road and the sun is reflecting off the painted lines on the pavement. The human driver, me, is a bit confused, so it’s hard to blame the robot.
That doesn’t mean comma 3 is perfect
However, as good as comma 3 is, it doesn’t make your car drive itself. Even with my hands off the wheel, I have to pay attention and be ready to take over at any time. Case in point – I’m stopped at a red left turn arrow, but when it turns green, the car won’t go.
“It’s scared,” Hotz says, reminding me that he really thinks of this system as a human-like robot. However, all I have to do is give the steering wheel a little input and the car starts the turn. Power steering, yes. Self-directed, no.
Comma 3 is compatible with over 200 vehicles, some with a model year as old as 2014. Comma.ai says its system works particularly well with late-model Hyundai and Toyota cars. You can grab one on the Comma.ai website for $1,499, more if you want more video storage plus $200 for your car’s specific wiring harness.
Hotz demonstrating an earlier version of its standby driver assistance technology Photo by Michael Zelenko/The Verge
The unit has been on the market for about a year and a half and 5,000 of them are in the hands of drivers as we speak. Hotz thinks that, within two years, we’ll see a Chinese manufacturer build a car with its technology integrated. However, it is unclear what the future holds for Hotz and his company.
He says: “This is not the game plan forever. I think we’re going to have a great five-year run where we’re going to make a few hundred million dollars selling these things, but long-term, I want to go beyond these things… The real thing you want is a driver. What you really want is a humanoid robot that will sit in the driver’s seat and drive the car.”
Hotz claims to have a rudimentary comma body, and I’ve already seen the comma head during this demo. It remains to be seen whether a fully self-driving robot — either vacuuming or cooking — is something Comma.ai can produce. One thing I can say for sure: hacker turned robot builder is a pretty good career trajectory.