Open Source… Driverless Cars?

If you follow this blog, you may have figured out that I spend a massively disproportionate amount of my time trawling various business related media sources with the reckless abandon of a rabid monkey hopped up on caffeine. Most people have hobbies like skiing, or mountain biking, but reading stuff is mine. I’m a nerd, and that’s how it works. Recently, I’ve made a habit of listening to various Motley Fool Podcasts in the morning. One of these podcasts is called Industry Focus, a podcast which drills into cool happenings in different industries every episode. A couple of days ago, I was listening to an Industry Focus Podcast that talked about the technology industry as it appeared at South by Southwest (SXSW).

On this podcast was a focus on comma.ai. comma.ai touts themselves as being “Ghost riding for the masses,” and the company makes an open source module which can be installed on pre-existing cars for $1,000 or less. As if that wasn’t intriguing enough, the podcast contained an extended interview with George Hotz, the man behind comma.ai. Hotz first rose from anonymity by being the first person to hack an iPhone. This guy tells it straight; as evidence, Hotz is quoted on his former feud with Elon Musk of Tesla in The Virge as saying, “I’m an Elon Musk fan. He jerked me around, I jerked him around, we’re even.”

In Hotz’s words, most incremental discoveries are in their essence pretty boring, but the magic really comes when these small breakthroughs are compounded. So, here’s why even though the fledgling venture isn’t exactly on the shelves yet, you should care: The basic issue with driverless cars is that although they’re cool, they’re not at all affordable. How is an $80,000 Prius with $150,000 tech reachable to anyone short of the C-suite of a global Fortune 500? Simple, it isn’t. A $200,000 + price tag might be okay for a commercial market – automated trucks maybe – but it is not a consumer-friendly option. So, what’s the answer? Open source, that’s the answer.

Hotz has designed his whole system, called Open Pilot (as opposed to Tesla’s “Autopilot”) on Linux and using other open source projects. This allows him to keep his costs down, so he can offer you a self driving car for around $1,000. The code itself is for both an open source adaptive cruise control, and a lane keeping assist system. Code for Hotz’s software, and plans for his hardware known as Comma Neo, can be found on Github, here. Before you get too excited though, the software only supports the 2016 Acura ILX, and 2016 Honda Civic Touring Edition for certain at the time of this blog post (or as Hotz claims online probably all Acuras and Hondas). Comma Neo needs a special OS called NeOS which can only be run on the OnePlus 3. Additionally, you’ll need access to a 3D printer to print the Comma Neo housing. Although Holtz does not comment on the Neo side restrictions of his project, he claims that his software will eventually be expanded to include different models of cars. You can also follow along with comma.ai’s progress on their blog here.

Now if you’re in the loop, you may have heard about the new Red Hat film, The Road to AI. If you’re really in the loop, you’ve watched the trailer and noticed that the problem outlined seemed to be data driven. Hotz may have solved that issue: since comma.ai doesn’t have cars like Google or Tesla to gather driving data, the company is again moving to the community for answers. Instead of using hardwired rules to guide their system (when X happens, always do Y), comma.ai is using aggregated data from drivers for commands. Therefore, if most drivers slow down at a specified point, so too will comma.ai’s systems. By the end of 2018, comma.ai hopes to gather 1 billion miles of information. In order to gather this data, Hotz announced the Chffr app, which runs on a phone, attached your dashboard and records your driving habits. For your efforts, comma.ai will reward you with “Comma points” which can be redeemed for things that will make you “feel really great” according to Hotz.

So there you go, a quick teaser of open source driverless cars. For more information, Google comma.ai – as it turns out, it’s a pretty hot topic! In my opinion, the winners of our new industrial revolution are going to be the ones who can deliver power back to the people, companies like Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb. Open source can help put that power back into the hands of the masses, and this time, it’s in the form of driverless cars. Boom.

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