Does making a product free mean you don’t have to answer to authorities who might come knocking later? One experienced hacker seems to think his startup can avoid liability while giving away code for a software kit to convert cars into self-driving vehicles.
Comma.ai, a new self-driving company founded by well-known hacker George Shotz, released the free kit on Wednesday in an effort to give developers the tools to build a device that can essentially turn any car into an autonomous vehicle, The Washington Post reports. By making it free, Shotz is hoping to keep regulators at bay.
See, originally, he’d planned to sell the kit for $999. But after announcing as much at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference, he received a warning letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency wanted information on the safety of the product — so he canceled the launch, saying he didn’t have the money to hire lawyers and get the government to sign off. Instead, he figured he’d just give it away. His thinking? Since NHTSA regulates commercial vehicles, if he’s not selling anything, he doesn’t have to have the agency’s approval.
“We want to be the Android operating system for self-driving cars,” Hotz said at a news conference Wednesday.
Here’s how it works: the code lets anyone — most likely very talented hackers — to build a dashcam of sorts that plugs into a port in the car. Users have to first build the device with a 3D printer, and they must have an Android OnePlus 3 phone to run the code and provide the camera that can scan the road. Shotz says the software is designed to shut down and slow down the car after six minutes of inactivity from the driver. The software currently only works with some Honda and Acura vehicles.
Hotz says it’s an open-source alternative to Tesla’s autopilot, and not software for a fully autonomous car. NHTSA didn’t comment on the software, but some advocates are calling it out as unsafe.
“Comma is a clear threat to highway safety, and attempting to release it like this is absolutely outrageous,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog told The Post, noting that NHTSA can pull any car off the road at any time if it has features that make it an imminent danger. “NHTSA and the California DMV should act now to keep vehicles equipped with Hotz’s device off the highway.”
Further, adding such a device to your car would be breaking the law, he says: in California, an autonomous vehicle isn’t allowed on a public road without a permit that comes with $5 million in insurance, and a demonstrable training program for drivers.
But Hotz says the product isn’t meant for consumers, but for “tinkerers.”
“These are people who, if they wanted to do bad things, they already could,” he said.