Autonomous Vehicle Company Shuts Down in Fear of Regulation
November 4, 2016
Of all the boogeymen in the world, regulatory overreach may be the most feared in Silicon Valley.
So was the case for Comma.ai, a designer of aftermarket kits that had the potential to make vehicles highly automated for less than $999 – with the goal of eventually developing kits that would turn any car into an autonomous vehicle (AV).
Renowned hacker George Hotz, who was among the first to successfully hack iPhones and the Playstation 3, launched the startup out of his garage. Comma.ai’s first product would have been Comma One – a box that sits in the place of a vehicle’s rearview mirror and functions as an advanced driver assistance system. The box was designed to function as an aftermarket extension of the Honda 2016/17 Civic’s automated features.
An October 20 blog post by George Hotz stated that its Comma One system “will not turn your car into an autonomous vehicle. It is an advanced driver assistance system.”
Hotz said that the system provides no new functionality other than improving Honda’s already-existing automated features, but that drivers must pay attention to the road rather than relying fully on the automated system. Alluding to Tesla’s Autopilot, which was implicated in a fatal collision this summer when both the software and the driver failed to see an oncoming tractor-trailer, Hotz reinforced that drivers are fully responsible for the task of driving.
The kicker: Hotz claimed that Comma One “should be legal everywhere the Honda systems are; it is an aftermarket upgrade.”
This made National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) take notice. George Hotz received a letter from the agency on October 27 that advised Comma.ai of NHTSA’s role in regulating motor vehicle safety performance and “strongly encourage[d]” Comma.ai to delay selling or deploying its technology until it is safe.
NHTSA ensures that all original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and developers of aftermarket products comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), which regulate the safety and design of commercial vehicles. NHTSA reminded (or perhaps instructed) Hotz of its responsibility to investigate safety defects and recall vehicles/components that pose a safety risk.
A major concern about the gradual development of autonomous vehicles is that consumers will fail to understand their capabilities. In a worst-case scenario, drivers think that their vehicles are fully autonomous when they only have lane keeping assist or adaptive cruise control capabilities, then put themselves and others at risk by abusing these functions.
Alarmingly, a simple Google search will show that this is already happening. Numerous examples abound of Tesla drivers engaging its Autopilot system so that they can read, text, and sleep. And although NHTSA’s investigation of the Tesla crash earlier this summer is ongoing, there’s a chance that this behavior is what ostensibly caused the first death in a semi-autonomous vehicle.
NHTSA stressed the same concern about drivers’ willful neglect in their letter to Hotz, saying that there is a “high likelihood that some drivers will use [Comma.ai’s] product in a manner that exceeds its intended purpose.”
This is not without precedent. In its Automated Vehicles Policy, NHTSA emphasized the responsibility of the industry and government entities to explicitly inform consumers of the limitations of autonomous vehicles.
Comma.ai’s marketing was consistent with this – at the Disrupt SF conference this fall, George Hotz explicitly stated that Comma One does not create a self-driving car that people can take naps in.
This is where the communications breakdown between Silicon Valley and government becomes an issue – actors on each side typically share the same goals, but speak different languages and have vastly different approaches.
NHTSA was not attempting to shut down Comma.ai because its technology is semi-autonomous, and it certainly had no intention to punish the startup for its marketing. Instead, NHTSA requested that Comma.ai take the appropriate measures to ensure its technology is safe – just like every other player in the industry – and respond to a special order by November 10, 2016.
Of course, two things must have scared off Hotz: the requirement that he issue a response signed under oath and the threat of civil penalties up to $21,000 per day if he did not respond to NHTSA within a few weeks.
The special order required Comma.ai to answer 15 questions in detail – most of which were fairly pedestrian. NHTSA asked for information on how Comma One is installed, its capabilities and limitations, a detailed list of how Comma.ai has ensured it is safe, and a list of how it may malfunction or otherwise inhibit the safe operation of vehicles.
Most importantly, the final few questions called attention to the fatal flaw in Comma One’s design: it is placed over the rearview mirror, which is required under FMVSS Standard No. 111.
Instead of working with NHTSA and respecting a process created to save lives, Hotz announced on Twitter that Comma One would be canceled. The tweetstorm speaks for itself.