Letter From NHTSA Sends George Hotz & Comma.ai Into A Tizzy

Calling George Hotz brash is like saying the Pacific Ocean holds a lot of water. The self-proclaimed superhacker first burst onto the scene when he became the first person in the world to hack an iPhone. He was 17. More recently, he has boldly asserted that anything Elon Musk could do, he could do better. He once challenged Musk to a contest to build a self-driving car that could navigate the Golden Gate bridge. Musk brushed him off, saying any fool with a high school education could do that. The trick was to make a car that can navigate through downtown traffic successfully.


In September, Hotz used the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco to announce that his company, Comma.ai, would begin selling an aftermarket self-driving system called Comma One by the end of the year. At first, Comma One would work with certain Honda models and offer self-driving capabilities similar to Tesla’s Autopilot system. The price? An eye-popping $999. Later, the system would be adapted to work with other cars as well.

Imagine. Instead of dropping $100,000 on a Tesla, Joe Six Pack could outfit his late model Accord with a Comma One system for less than a grand. Take that, Elon!

The people at NHTSA decided they would like more information about Comma One, like how it worked and how it would deal with system failures. After all, adding self-steering and self-braking functions to an existing car might involve modifications that could put other motorists at risk. It sent Hotz a letter requesting answers to specific questions and asking him to delay offering the product for sale until after NHTSA had time to review all relevant information.

The letter came from Paul Hemmersbaugh, NHTSA’s chief counsel. He wrote that since Comma One is an aftermarket product, Comma.ai falls under the classification of a vehicle equipment manufacturer and is subject to the agency’s regulation. Infuriated that anyone would dare question his obvious brilliance, Hotz took to Twitter to announce that he was cancelling the Comma One project completely. He took that opportunity to have a hissy fit that disparaged lawyers and regulators in general.

Hotz went on to post the letter online so people could see how the heavy-handed brutes at NHTSA had threatened him. In actuality, the agency followed normal practice by informing Hotz that a failure to respond to the request for information could subject him and his company to financial penalties.

No one doubts that George Hotz is pretty hot stuff when it comes to electronics, but he has a few things to learn yet about being a person. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, “Dying is easy. Making a self-driving car is hard.” Hopefully, GeoHot, as he likes to call himself, will make enough money to buy a private island where he can operate his self-driving cars to his heart’s content without putting members of the public at risk. No doubt, lawyers and regulators will be prohibited in Hotzland.

Source: Autoblog | Photo by SHARE Conference (some rights reserved)

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.