Thursday, December 1, 2016

Free Software Makes Any Car Self-Driving

Here is a strategy for start-ups dealing with regulators who might shut down your product: Make it free.

Scrappy self-driving car start-up released a free software kit on Wednesday to help developers learn to build a device that can turn any car into an autonomous vehicle. The year-old company, which is founded by a well-known hacker and backed by prominent Silicon Valley investors, hopes to accelerate the development of self-driving cars while skirting the ire of Washington.

The move raises questions of how the United States should foster innovation for promising technologies that also carry great risks. Experts say self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce the number of accidents of the roadway, most of which are caused by human errors. But Comma’s self-driving kit has only logged roughly 5,000 miles of road time, a number that is effectively a useless barometer for judging safety, said John Simpson, of the safety advocacy group Consumer Watchdog.

The announcement also reflects the types of maneuvering start-ups are increasingly engaging in as they chart a path in heavily regulated sectors of the economy. A wave of companies in areas such as housing, DNA testing and aerospace is weighing whether to work with officials or to follow the playbook of companies such as Uber and Airbnb — asking forgiveness, but not permission, and seeing where the chips fall.

In Comma’s case, the strategy was an end run around the rulemakers.

When’s founder, George Hotz, announced his plan to sell a do-it-yourself self-driving software and hardware kit for $999 at a large industry conference this fall, the tech world was giddy with excitement. While large automakers and technology giants have poured billions into autonomous vehicles, Comma’s tech would have dramatically lowered the bar for entry. (...)

“We want to be the Android operating system for self-driving cars,” Hotz said at a news conference Wednesday, held in the company's garage in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. Hotz was referring to the open-source smartphone operating system, which has become ubiquitous because it is free and developers can easily innovate on it.

The code, which is available on the open-source collaboration platform GitHub, allows anyone (but really, hardcore hackers) to build a dashcam-like device that they can set up in their car. The device plugs into a port in the car called a controller area network, or BUS (in most cars built after 2006). Users must build the device with a 3-D printer and have an Android OnePlus 3 phone to run the code and provide the camera that can scan the road.

by Elizabeth Dwoskin, WP | Read more:
Image:Brian Fung