Back in August 2007, George Hotz, then a 17-year-old high school student from New Jersey, became the first person in the world to unlock an iPhone. He recorded a video on his webcam explaining what he’d done and posted it to YouTube. A media storm followed, Apple’s stock shot through the roof as people realised they could use them on any carrier with a little bit of effort and Hotz became a superstar in the world of tech.
Fast forward roughly a decade, and Hotz is preparing to lock horns with a massive tech giant again. And with Steve Jobs safely six feet under, it is the industry’s newest messiah, Elon Musk, who is in his sights – Hotz’ latest project is Comma.ai, an autonomous driving technology that could potentially rival Tesla’s much-vaunted AutoPilot and even Google’s self-driving tech. And just like all those years ago with the iPhone, Hotz did the heavy lifting all by himself, in his garage.
Hotz was initially hired by Elon Musk to work on Tesla’s self-driving program – a relationship that has since dissolved into a very bitter, very public battle. Hotz has publicly called out Musk and his tech, and Musk in turn, has hit back, dismissing the possibility of a “small company” like Comma ever being able to build a reliable self-driving system. For Hotz, at this stage of the game, building cheaper, better self-driving tech appears to be almost as much about beating Musk as about getting the tech right.
Despite Hotz obvious individual brilliance, Musk’s disparaging comments have a point. The artificial intelligence that powers a self-driving car needs much more than just great code. It needs thousands of hours of road time in varied terrains and traffic conditions that enable it to learn on the go. Turns out an AI, very much like a dog, needs to be trained. And while Tesla has all the billions it needs to conduct this kind of testing, Comma might struggle to match it.
Hotz was preparing for a public release of the Comma.ai tech, when he received a letter from US federal transport authorities raising similar concerns – they warned him not to start selling the system without the requisite testing.
In response, Hotz came up with a masterstroke: he released the Comma.ai source code for free on the Internet. The system was already designed to be a plug-and-play solution, something that you could connect to your existing car to turn it into a self-driving machine. The fact that it is now open source means that Hotz has suddenly become a rival to not just Tesla, but any other company developing a proprietary self-driving solution that they hope to use to sell their cars. Not just that, he’s also become the best friend and focal point for anyone outside of these companies who wants to work on self-driving tech. It also enables him to conveniently sidestep the authorities and their safety requirements as they do not apply to software products.
Tesla and the other name-brand companies will hit back, of course. This is just a skirmish in the long war to a future dominated by robot-cars. But right now, it looks as though George Hotz, the wonderkid that could, has punched a major hole in their projected profit margins.