While companies like Google, Tesla, and Mercedes are spending millions on research and development of self-driving cars, a 26-year-old hacker from San Francisco believes he might just have nailed the technology all on his own. George Hotz, previously known for his legendary iPhone jailbreaking skills, says he has developed autonomous car technology that actually works. What’s more, the technology only costs a few thousand dollars, and can be implemented on any car in the world.
Hotz, who at age 17 became the first person in the world to unlock an iPhone, also hacked a Sony Playstation 3 a few years later. He’s worked briefly at Google, SpaceX, and Facebook, but after studying artificial intelligence at Carnegie Mellon University, he decided to work on his own self-driving car technology. Once perfected, he plans to sell the system directly to customers through his startup, comma.ai.
Photo: Peter Bohler/Bloomberg Business
To develop the technology, Hotz used his 2016 Acura ILX as a test platform. Inside, he assembled a 21.5-inch screen on the dash, a mini computer running Linux, GPS sensors built into the glove compartment, and cameras mounted around the car. But what truly sets Hotz’s technology apart is the custom software he built that helps the hardware ‘learn’ to drive intuitively, like a human. Unlike other self-driving cars, Hotz’s approach isn’t based around rigid “if this happens, do this” type rules. Instead, the computer is fed with data on how humans drive cars.
“We have not told this car anything about driving,” Hotz explains in a video. “We’ve shown it 10 hours of human driving footage, and we’re like, ‘Here is what the human did. Behave like that human as much as you can.’ And you get all of this intuition that you’d never really get in a really big system.”
Photo: Bloomberg Business video caption
What’s really interesting is that the story of Hotz’s progress contains all the elements of a nail-biting business potboiler. According to an article on Bloomberg Business, Hotz met with Tesla CEO Elon Musk earlier this year to discuss at length the pros and cons of AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology. It led to Musk offering Hotz a job: “Frankly, I think you should just work at Tesla,” he later wrote to Hotz in an email. “I’m happy to work out a multi-million dollar bonus with a longer time horizon.” He did lay out a condition that the bonus would pay out as soon as Mobileye, a vision-based advanced driver assistance technology used in Tesla’s self-driving system, was discontinued.
To which Hotz replied: “I appreciate the offer, but like I’ve said, I’m not looking for a job. I’ll ping you when I crush Mobileye.”
After the Bloomberg article was published, Tesla came out with a blog post in which Musk attempts to debunk all of Hotz’s progress on the self-driving car technology. “We think it is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles,” the post read, adding that it “may work as a limited demo on a known stretch of road” and that “it takes enormous resources to debug over millions of miles of widely differing roads.”
Given the backstory from July, it’s easy to see how Tesla’s response might come across as a tad bitter. The company believes that its technology is not easily reproducible, but Hotz seems to have gone and done just that – create an intuitive self-driving system that car companies and individuals could buy off-the-shelf. For now, he calls it “ghostriding for the masses”.