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3 November 2016

Comma cancels retrofit self-driving tech, auto industry breathes sigh of relief

The US NHTSA has scalped Comma, a startup aiming to provide retrofit ADAS and semi-autonomous capabilities to vehicles for around $1,000. Not that it was a particularly bloody fight, as founder George Hotz has pulled the plug on a planned launch following an inquiry by the US regulator.

If there’s one area of the IoT that does definitely require government regulation, it is definitely autonomous vehicles. However, Hotz’s Twitter tone reads somewhat like a tantrum, given that the letter from the NHTSA isn’t particularly confrontational – aside from the potential penalty of $21,000 per day if no response is given to its questions about installation and operation.

The inquiry boils down to asking Comma to ensure that the product is safe, and that while the company asserts that it doesn’t remove the onus of ensuring safety on the road from the driver “you are undoubtedly aware there is a high likelihood that some drivers will use your product in a manner that exceeds its intended purpose. This creates a safety risk to drivers using your product and their passengers and other road users.”

The NHTSA told Ars Technica that “Mr Hotz’s decision to cancel the product is his own.” Hotz tweeted “got this in the mail today. First time I hear from them and they open with threats. No attempt at a dialog. Would much rather spend my life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn’t worth it.”

So whether you interpret this as Comma admitting that its product isn’t sufficiently road-worthy or that the potentially revolutionary technology is going away for a few quarters to simply iron out the last kinks to appease the NHTSA, what we can be sure of is that Comma is now facing a delay.

But the question of regulation aside, if someone like Hotz can build a capable retrofit unit for vehicles, then the automotive industry needs to hurry up and beat the startups to market – even if the regulators are acting as something of a barrier to innovation from smaller companies.

While the big names are more conservative, they do face a pressing need to provide new cars that are capable of self-driving tasks, as well as an option to cater for the massive quantity of potentially upgradeable second-hand cars on the road. It’s too big an opportunity to miss out on, unless it’s one that inadvertently leads to the government nailing you to a board.

Hotz, also known as GeoHot, is best known for being the first person to jailbreak an iPhone, but went on to homebrew an adapter kit that he fitted to his Acura ILX – and net around $3m in funding in the process.

Hotz has also told Ars Technica that he turned down a job with Tesla, citing its (now defunct) relationship with Mobileye – claiming that “Mobileye doesn’t want to innovate. Their business model is to work with regulators to lower the star safety ratings of cars that don’t have Mobileye in them, in order to force auto manufacturers to buy their chips.”

Whether that’s a true reflection of Hotz’s opinion of those that work with regulators or the beginning of a defamation lawsuit remains to be seen (don’t get your hopes up), but the fact remains that you can’t enter this industry without regulatory compliance – no matter your opinion of their rules.