If you think that the rivalry between George ‘geohot’ Hotz’s small autonomous driving startup comma.ai and Tesla is only in the hacker’s head, you might be wrong.
The hacker tried to buy a Model S last week and while Tesla didn’t outright stop him from buying the car as he made it sound on Twitter, the automaker indeed made him reconsider the purchase after an awkward call with Tesla’s legal counsel.
The “rivalry”, if we can call it that, dates back to December 2015.
When his self-driving car/machine learning startup ‘comma.ai’ came out of stealth mode, Hotz released an email conversation he had with Tesla CEO Elon Musk in which he was offered a contract with a “multimillion-dollar bonus” for him to build a new Autopilot system in order for Tesla to discontinue Mobileye’s part in the program.
It prompted a response from Tesla in which I’m just now realizing the company ended up
lying about misrepresenting its future plans for Autopilot. Tesla defended Mobileye since Musk’s conversation with Hotz made it sound like Tesla wanted to get rid of Mobileye.
At the time, the company wrote in response:
“Going forward, we will continue to use the most advanced component technologies, such as MobilEye’s vision chip, in our vehicles. Their part is the best in the world at what it does and that is why we use it.”
Less than a year later, the company ended up discontinuing Mobileye’s chip and software with the introduction of the second generation Autopilot in October 2016.
It’s not to say that Hotz could have produced an alternative sooner, but the chain of events that came to light is nonetheless interesting.
Hotz’s startup has since changed its approach to open-sourcing the hardware, which can only be installed on a handful of car models, and focused on the software for a driver assist system similar in functionalities to Tesla’s first generation Autopilot, according to users (I have never tried it myself unfortunately).
Fast forward to last week. Hotz wanted to buy a Model S 60 with Autopilot 2.0 in inventory. He placed a deposit and was scheduled to pick up the car last Thursday, but Tesla delayed the order until its legal counsel could talk to Hotz – something Electrek was able to confirm.
The purpose of the call was apparently a reminder that intellectual property theft is illegal. Hotz perceived the call as a “thinly veiled threat” and decided not to continue with the purchase over concerns of being singled out by Tesla. He told Electrek:
“[I’m] concerned about being singled out like that by a company that has ssh (Secure Shell) access to all the cars.”
While Musk has been known in the past for canceling the order of a customer because he thought the customer in question was rude in a blog post, it’s not what happened here. Hotz was actually allowed to continue with the order, but he himself decided not to after the call with Tesla’s legal counsel.
After talking with comma.ai’s own counsel, Hotz doesn’t think the company would have infringed on any intellectual property because of what they planned to do with the car.
Hotz planned to make compatible comma.ai’s openpilot software with Tesla’s new Autopilot hardware suite. Some Tesla owners already hack their cars and even the Autopilot software in order to, for example, reduce the alerts that the system sends to remind the driver to keep their hands on the steering wheel.
The company’s comma neo currently only uses one forward-facing camera and radar, like Tesla’s first gen Autopilot and even the current version of the ‘Enhanced Autopilot’, but Hotz wants to make his software compatible with more vehicles and there’s currently no autonomous driving hardware suite more advanced than in Tesla’s new vehicles with 8 cameras, 1 radar, 360-degree ultrasonic sensors.
Considering that Tesla’s software has yet to catch up to the capabilities of the first generation on the new hardware, comma.ai could try to offer an alternative to Tesla owners.
Tesla first estimated that vehicles on the new hardware and Tesla’s own ‘Tesla Vision’ image processing software would catch up to the first generation Autopilot using Mobileye’s system by December 2016, but the timeline has now slipped to later this month.