Self-driving car startup cancels first product because dealing with regulators and lawyers “isn’t worth it”

One short month ago.
One short month ago.
Image: Reuters/ Beck Diefenbach
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A warning to all self-driving car startups: You might have to deal with the government.

In a series of tweets this morning, Comma.ai, the company that just last month promised semi-autonomous driving as a $999 aftermarket upgrade by the end of year, announced that it won’t release that product after all. Comma.ai will be “exploring other products and markets.”

This radical shift came after founder George Hotz received a letter from the US National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, which “strongly encouraged” the company to delay the sale or deployment of the Comma One, the company’s first product, until it could ensure its safety. It went on to ask a series of fairly standard questions, starting with “describe in detail how the comma one is installed in a vehicle,” and going all the way to “state the date on which you currently plan to begin selling the comma one,” along with questions about how the device relates to current rearview mirror regulations.

Hotz claimed that the NHTSA made “No attempt at a dialog,” and then tweeted that he would rather spend his life creating rather than bogged down in regulation.

The NHTSA letter cites a blog post from Hotz last week, where the founder stressed that the Comma One doesn’t provide true autonomy, but is still better than the sensing in current cars. He writes:

The comma one will not turn your car into an autonomous vehicle. It is an advanced driver assistance system. To put it in traditional auto manufacturer terms, it is “lane keep assist” and “adaptive cruise control”

Our supported car, the Honda 2016/17 Civic with Sensing already has these features. But as anyone with the car will tell you, they aren’t very good. The comma.ai system is just much better. It provides no new functionality, so it should be legal everywhere the Honda systems are; it is an aftermarket upgrade.

The Comma.ai site is still active, and at the bottom of the page displays a quote attributed to former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop and “car companies in 5 years.

“We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.”