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Riding shotgun in a DIY self-driving car

Infamous iPhone jailbreaker Geohot is taking on Tesla.
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"I'm an idiot."

Superhacker and Comma founder George Hotz is standing in a Las Vegas suite, and he's wearing a suit. That's saying something: He was the first person to hack the iPhone and PlayStation 3 while using the hacker name GeoHot. He doesn't wear suits. But now he's running a company that's built its own semi-autonomous AI-trained vehicle in a garage. Today it has employees and investors, and plans to release hardware by the end of the year. "This is a big deal, so he dressed up," Jake Smith, head of operations, told me on my way to the meeting.

Gallery: Comma.ai Test Vehicle | 23 Photos

The reason Hotz is telling me he's an idiot -- while dressed out of character, no less -- is that he set up test drives for reporters in Las Vegas without doing all of his homework. He didn't realize that Sin City doesn't use white lines to outline lanes. Instead, the state uses raised markers called botts dots instead of paint.

That's a problem: The Comma test vehicle has never driven on roads with bumps instead of paint. Hotz was so worried about this that he barely slept the night before.

On the morning of our meeting he had to take the car out to "teach" it to drive using botts dots as lane markers. He just drove it around. That's the main conceit of Comma's semiautonomous driving system: teaching the car to drive by actually driving it. But it's also a flaw. The company has just one vehicle and it's only been on the road for about 100 hours. Right now it has about the same amount of on-the-road time as teenager, and we all remember the horrible decisions we made while driving in high school.

To close the gap between what Comma's AI system has actually seen in the real world and what it needs to launch commercially later this year, Hotz and his team came up with a very Silicon Valley solution: an app.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Chffr app (it was originally called Chauffeur, but the company realized no one knows how to actually spell that word) will crowdsource the driving data Comma needs. Drivers mount their smartphone running the app to their windshield and drive. The information is then anonymously shared with the company via WiFi. Hotz's team then uses those trips to train its AI. "It's a great way of being part of self-driving cars," Hotz told Engadget. "You're helping literally teach our system how to drive."

The app also doubles as a fancy dash cam that records video and trips for later perusing. And if that isn't enough to get you on board, Hotz also announced that the company would incentivize the system: For each minute someone is behind the wheel, she getshz a "Comma Point." When the app and companion site launch at the end of June, there will be a leaderboard for power users and a forum. As for what these points are actually worth, Hotz just grinned and said, "People who are at the top of that leaderboard, they'll be happy they are there. Let's just say that."

Initially the app will be available only on the Galaxy S6, Nexus 6P and Galaxy S7, with iPhone support coming later. Hotz said half of the people who signed up for the beta were iPhone users, so getting an eventual iOS version out is imperative. Comma also needs as many users as possible to make the AI good enough that average drivers will be confident enough to put their lives in the hands of a box that drives your car for you. Throwing a car together in your garage is one thing; selling products is another.

Hotz knows this, which explains the PowerPoint deck, suit and press event in Las Vegas. "There's a big leap going from a hack built by one person in a basement over a few months to a product that's actually shippable to a large number of people with a code base that's maintainable and will continue to scale throughout the entire problem of driving not just one small subset of it," Hotz told Engadget.

But even the grown-up, taking-care-of-business version of GeoHot is still a ball of energy: lots of non sequiturs and asides peppering his prepared statements. After telling me in a very serious voice, "This is no longer a hack, this is a startup," he followed up with: "We're gonna ship products. We're not just going to sit there on our VC dollars and sip fancy fruit juice all day." There's still a lot of GeoHot behind that tie.

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When I took the updated version of his Acura ILX sedan out for a drive to see how it works, he ran around the car talking a mile a minute showing off updates and changes to the system. The car no longer has a joystick or LIDAR (the spatial-measuring system that uses lasers was for training purposes only). He was keen to show off the DIY methods he used to mount a battery in the trunk (it was surrounded by bits of styrofoam). He also pointed to the LTE antenna on the trunk and radar attached to the bumper (both held in place with mounds of black tape). Additionally, there's a gaming PC in the trunk and an amp for "480 watts of sound." He's having fun and it's infectious.

As we're about to take the car on the freeway to show off its semiautonomous features, I ask if he minds if I do a Facebook Live video. I'm the first person in the car since he trained it that morning. "Not at all," he says. A few seconds later: "Actually, let me think about that. All right, I guess we'll do live stuff." The car could have failed spectacularly and he knew it. After we get on the freeway and I start the stream, he yells out, "Yeah, self-driving. What's up?"

The actual drive was impressive. Without thinking about the amount of technology or research that's been put into the car, Comma's system is almost as good as Tesla's Autopilot but without the lane-changing capability or the road-sign reading found on other systems (features Hotz calls gimmicky). After all, Hotz started this on his own in September of last year with off-the-shelf components. Now the company has with six employees. If Chffr takes off and the startup gets the data it needs to teach its AI to be a better driver and it can get its sub-$1,000 system for folks who can't afford the luxury of a Model S, it'll be a huge achievement. It might even help ease the longer-term transition to fully autonomous vehicles.

Comma's motto is: Ghostriding for the masses. That's a tongue-in-cheek reference to jumping out of a vehicle and letting it roll down the street while the driver dances alongside. It's funny, but I wouldn't be surprised if the slogan changes before the company ships any hardware. Cars are dangerous hunks of metal hurtling down the road. There's nothing funny about people being hurt in a car accident. Hotz may have called himself an idiot for not anticipating the botts dots of Vegas, but he's far from stupid. Running a company that actually ships stuff is a sign he's looking toward the future. He's getting ready to take on the grown-ups of the automotive world, but will probably keep having fun along the way.

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