Comma AI’s dash cams are a stepping-stone to autonomous driving

It’s dash cams for now, with an eye on autonomous driving.

I'm never sure what to expect when I walk up the steps of Comma AI's office (which is actually a house in a San Francisco neighborhood). Its founder and all-around rabble-rouser George Hotz (the iPhone and Playstation hacker more commonly known as Geohot) has strong opinions about the automotive industry and how he can fix it. The company's "ghost riding for the masses" tagline won't win over regulators, but Comma AI's long-term goal of running your car's operating system seems doable. But first, the company is concentrating on dash cams that tap into your car's data.

Comma AI's latest piece of hardware is the EON dash cam developer kit. The $700 piece of hardware is a camera that also runs apps you'd use while driving, like Spotify and Waze. In fact, it's actually just an Android phone (a OnePlus 3 to be exact) with a custom case and software that taps into the smartphone's camera, gyroscope, GPS and accelerometer. That hardware, coupled with the new Chffrplus app (which is only available on the EON) allows Hotz and crew to distribute consumer hardware that also tracks your driving so it can train its self-driving AI system.

The info shared by the app means you can track your trips and in case of an accident, have video proof, while Comma AI uses it to train its fledgling AI to control a self-driving car. Unlike the Comma One that Hotz showed off in Vegas that actually drove his Acura, the hardware the company actually sells only reads and analyzes data from vehicles; none of it will actually control your car.

Hotz is very clear on that last point: "We're building out each component that we're going to need to have a truly consumerized self-drive system and that is where Comma AI is going. We're not there yet. I do emphasize that this is only a dash cam. Anybody who modifies it is completely on their own."

He's had his run-ins with regulators about plans to sell self-driving hardware to the masses and he's not eager to repeat that. At least, not before his system is ready to take on the infotainment and autonomous systems being built by the legacy automakers. Comma AI wants to be the Android of cars; it'll build the operating system that sits in every vehicle regardless of make or model. That puts Comma AI in direct competition with the likes of Google, which has been working on the same thing with Waymo.

Currently, the automotive world is in a race, not just with Tesla and companies like Comma AI, but with each other to get a level 4 vehicle (completely autonomous in specific situations) on the road. The rub is that when that happens it'll most likely be too expensive for the average consumer. That's why companies like Ford and GM are investing and talking at length about "mobility" with autonomous ride-hailing services that rival or work with Lyft and Uber.

In the meantime we have Tesla's Autopilot, Cadillac's Super Cruise, Audi's new level 3 (autonomous in limited situations) Traffic Jam Pilot and others. Every automaker is taking a slightly different approach to the problem. It breeds competition (which is good) but also fragmentation (which is bad). None of the systems talk to one another right now, but eventually, they're going to have to if we want an infrastructure that runs smoothly.

Hotz thinks they're going about it all wrong, and that automakers while good at building hardware are not so hot at software. "I'm doing this to beat the car companies. I don't want to live in a world where there's the Audi system and the GM system" he said.

In other words, he thinks they should stop worrying about building their autonomous systems and let companies like Comma AI and Google do it for them. They build the car; he builds the software that runs them.

But, for now, Comma AI is selling a high-end developer dash cam that tracks trips and, when used in conjunction with the Panda OBD dongle the company released July, can log details about your drive using data from your car. Even without the dongle, the EON tracks and saves what it sees while augmenting that information by highlighting other vehicles and lane markers with its AI. It shares that information with the driver but also anonymizes it and the video and sends them securely to Comma AI. The EON, then, is a high-end hardware version of Chffr dash-cam app for iOS and Android. It won't drive your car for you, but if Hotz has his way, something very similar will do just that in the very near future.