Automotive > Infotainment & Telematics Blog

Hotz Holds Industry Hostage

by Roger Lanctot | Aug 02, 2021

Comma.ai held its Comma_con event Saturday to highlight the progress the company had made in its pursuit of developing an open source aftermarket self-driving car device, the latest version of which arrives next week dubbed the Comma three. At the hours-long event, George Hotz, founder of the company joined a group of engineers who described the advances the company has made to date in hardware, software, training and testing, and infrastructure.

Comma_con event recording on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gWZADVzVMFs

Technology bad boy Hotz described his intention and that of Comma.ai, to win the race to capitalize on self-driving tech and to do so with an open source, direct-to-consumer strategy.  (Hotz flirted with an acquisition of Comma.ai by Tesla in his earliest days working on self-driving, when CEO Elon Musk was seeking a Mobileye alternative. After that failed engagement, Hotz took his Comma one to market, later abandoning the device following inquiries by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For the Comma two, Hotz sold the device and opensourced the Openpilot software.)

Hotz has eschewed direct engagement with the automotive industry and opted to work around NHTSA regulators. He also appears to have avoided or rejected merger or acquisition talks. His stated objective is to become a consumer electronics company.

At the Comma_con event, Hotz described several metrics of Comma.ai's success thus far including $9M in revenue, $8.1M in raised capital, 3,500 active weekly users, and 5,000 Comma twos sold. True to form, Hotz chided the financial and automotive industries noting that Comma.ai has no plans to IPO or SPAC. As for his self-driving technology rivals he said: “How do you compete when everyone’s just lying.”

As a multiple-industry SPAC-lash – against special purpose acquisition corporations – grows, Hotz appears determined to defy prevailing financial conventions in his pursuit of his next two immediate goals: $8.1M in assets and $8.1M in cash. He says he is personally taking a $78K salary.

Hotz’s longer term goal is to sell a million devices at $1,000 apiece. The Comma.ai device on offer is a smartphone-sized aftermarket unit capable of running Comma.ai open source Openpilot software that converts a vehicle equipped with advanced driver assist technologies such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping into a hands-free driving experience.

Hotz says Comma.ai devices are now adaptable for use in 130+ car models representing 50% of all cars sold in North America – or about 8M compatible cars per year. He says the current potential market for his devices comprises more than 25M vehicles already on the road.

Comma.ai has so far had the last laugh on the auto industry – topping Consumer Reports comparison chart of semi-autonomous driving systems. Comma.ai captured that honor largely on the strength of the Openpilot software and the integrated camera-based driver monitor on the Comma two – a capability not available from the likes of Tesla.

With the Comma three, Comma.ai has enhanced the capability of the Comma two with a more capable software offering running a Linux-based operating system and navigation software from Open Street Map supporter Mapbox. Car makers with compatible car models capable of integrating the Comma three include Toyota, Subaru, Hyundai, Audi, Volkswagen, and Honda, according to the company.

None of these car makers are thrilled that Hotz is making his potentially warranty-busting product available in the aftermarket. But there’s not much they can do. Given Comma.ai’s small size one might imagine a large auto maker acquiring the company just to shut it down – but Comma.ai is neither for sale nor is an acquisition likely to dissuade Hotz from his self-driving mission.

Hotz’s aversion to financial chicanery of the sort resorted to by Nikola Motors (now facing lawsuits and investigations), and nearly revenue-free entities such as Otonomo and Wejo, creates an interesting conundrum for both the automotive industry and regulators. Comma.ai is no charitable entity. The new Comma three is available for $2,799 in the 1TB Crosscountry version or $2,199 for the basic model, and Hotz appears to be weighing a subscription model not unlike Tesla’s suggested $199/month for Full Self Driving.

With auto makers like General Motors offering Super Cruise for upwards of $5,000 and Tesla asking more than $10,000 for full self driving, Hotz is slyly offering his aftermarket system for a fraction of the price and, now, throwing in navigation. In fact, Hotz is attracting a crowd of imitators with more than four startups piggybacking on his opensource solution with their own devices.

Thanks to Hotz, the self-driving cow is out of the barn and there isn’t much anyone can do. The good or bad news, depending on your perspective as a car maker, a driver sharing the road with Comma two and three users, or a regulator, the devices work as well as more expensive systems from leading auto makers - just ask Consumer Reports.

Hotz’s almost ascetic devotion to the cause of self-driving above all was captured in the Q&A at Comma_con. An audience member at Comma_con asked him if the company was pursuing the fleet industry – where valuations for dashcam operators have skyrocketed. Hotz merely noted that anyone is welcome to purchase a Comma three, or a Comma two, of which there are a few hundred left.  In other words, Hotz isn’t beating the bushes for business. He and his team are head down solving the challenge of aftermarket self-driving tech. Comma device users appear to love that and him.

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