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07 July 2017

Hacker’s DIY self-driving car platform is starting to sell hardware

Renowned hacker George Hotz wants to give you the tools to hack your own car to put an autonomous vehicle in your garage. His new self-driving car company, Comma.ai, is making that vision a reality today with its very first product.     

The company announced it’s launching the Panda, a new $88 universal car interface that will help turn your normal vehicle into an autonomous one. 

The device, which the company bills as “the nicest universal car interface ever,” is purported to track just about everything about your vehicle’s performance while offering USB, Wi-Fi, and open-source software support including its openpilot self-driving platform, which harnesses a car’s built-in sensors for partial automation. 

The company explained how the new hardware can take advantage of all its open-source software in a lengthy Medium post, urging car enthusiasts and hackers alike to start tinkering with the troves of data just waiting in their garage.   

The Panda won’t give your car self-driving power all by itself, though; it collects data about the vehicle’s performance (such as fuel efficiency) after being plugged directly into your OBDII port, which is a standard feature in every car made since 1996. 

Chffr, the company’s cloud dashcam app, also lets Panda users to use their cars’ sensors to record data from every aspect of their drives, capturing road video along with performance metrics.   

The Panda plugs right into your car.

The Panda plugs right into your car.

Once you’ve used the Panda running Chffr to take an extra look under your car’s hood (and everywhere else, for that matter), Comma.ai’s other big new release, Cabana, will help you interpret that data to make it easier to understand. 

Cabana’s web interface makes sense of the various signal and sensor information collected by the Panda, analyzing the information and interpreting it on a dashboard for your review. The company posted a video of the software in action, showing off the data collection and analysis in real time. 

So you now know exactly how well your car is performing — cool. So what do you do with that information? Just look at it and admire the well-oiled machine? Does anyone outside of the most fervent gearheads care that much about their cars?

Hotz admitted that much in a phone call with Mashable. “I’d still not call it a true consumer product, it’s a car enthusiast product,” he said. 

Panda stacks.

Panda stacks.

But there is one way the data can be put to use outside of individual enthusiasts’ computers: crowdsourcing. Cabana helps you reverse engineer the signals your car is sending to determine the model’s DBC, an industry standard “decoder ring” for all the sensors and capabilities of every car. That makes it possible to control its systems automatically via the company’s openpilot software.  

The company is rolling out opendbc, an open DBC repository that could help to give car modders  access to every vehicle on the road. The company’s goal is to eventually build up the repository to contain a DBC file for every car ever manufactured, so that the number of cars compatible with openpilot can jump from three — the Acura ILX, Honda Civic, and Toyota Prius — to, well, all of them.

Comma.ai’s path so far, and road ahead

Hotz, who’s best known as the first person who unlocked the iPhone, has been working on a DIY self-driving car system for some time now — but the road hasn’t always been smooth. 

The self-driving project, which Hotz built in his garage using 2,000 lines of code, famously caught the ire of Tesla boss Elon Musk after an article profiling Hotz and the platform, which he installed and successfully operated in his Acura. Musk called the story “inaccurate” and demanded a correction, claiming that no one could build such a system for use on public roads with Hotz’s resources.  

The first time Hotz and Comma.ai went to the public with a retail version of hardware for the platform, the Comma One, last fall, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sent an inquiry his way and threatened penalties if he didn’t submit to oversight considerations. In response, Comma.ai canceled the product’s launch and instead released the code behind it as an open source project for the public, along with instructions on how to build the hardware, called the Neo platform

Other companies, like Neodriven, went on to build and market aftermarket platforms to run the software, allowing enthusiastic modders to create their own self-driving cars. When I asked experts back in February about the system, they told me it’s legal, at least for the time being.   

That community has grown, according to Hotz — and with the new hardware, it will only continue to grow. “We have a working aftermarket platform with 73 users who have actually driven their car with this stuff,” Holtz told Mashable. “The barrier for entry is still quite high. But the barrier for entry on Panda is certainly lower than Neo.”

Holtz does know how he wants to build his system out for the future, which could position it to take a place in cars everywhere. 

“We’ll provide an API,” he said. “That will allow developers to build apps on top of this platform with access to all this data. So maybe we throw a Comma.ai hackathon, and see who can make the best consumer facing app.”   

Once the developer community is involved, he thinks more broadly appealing uses will be created for people who aren’t just obsessed with peak auto performance. 

His thinking is that when the Panda gets into more cars, the DBC repository will grow, and, as Hotz puts it, Comma.ai could find itself in a position to be an open platform for self-driving cars, like Android for smartphone operating systems. 

Chinese search giant Baidu, which recently discussed its own open source self-driving platform, made the same comparison — but that doesn’t bother Hotz.  

“Baidu’s not our competitor,” he said. “We applaud their open sourcing effort — we love to see anybody open sourcing stuff. But the battle isn’t between us and Baidu. It’s between open vs. closed.”

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