American software startup Comma.ai has made its autonomous driving kit available to the public, with the system's software code and hardware plans being published on the internet for free download.
The company had planned to sell the system as an aftermarket add-on for certain Honda and Acura models under the 'Comma One' tag, but was blocked by authorities in the US. Upon announcing the new offering, Comma.ai boss George Hotz - the first hacker to unlock the original Apple iPhone - told Bloomberg, "we're not selling a product - we are just making plans available on the internet, which is a whole lot more like free speech."
Comma.ai is inviting programmers to work on the software, which is called Open Pilot, to expand the system's functionality and allow it to work with more Honda and Acura models and with cars from other manufacturers.
The software operates via a box of custom-made electronics called Neo that is mounted in place of the rear-view mirror. A Chinese-built OnePlus 3 Android smartphone, which is on sale in the UK for £329, must be mounted inside the box to provide camera inputs and processing power.
The system also depends on existing camera and radar-based driver assist modules - specifically the Lane Keeping Assist System and Adaptive Cruise Control that are provided under the Honda Sensing driver aid suite in the US-market 2016 Honda Civic Touring and the AcuraWatch Plus pack in the 2016 Acura ILX saloon.
In standard form, both models require the driver to keep their hands on the wheel for lane assist to operate, but Comma.ai's system allows a hands-free driving experience on the highway by taking control of steering, braking and accelerating - albeit the company is quick to classify the setup as a driver aid rather than an autonomous system. It also says the Neo unit is merely a 'research platform' - though anyone can buy the necessary components to build it - and includes the following disclaimer on its website:
"This is alpha-quality software for research purposes only. This is not a product. You are responsible for complying with local laws and regulations. No warranty expressed or implied."
The self-driving software was developed on an Acura ILX test mule that observed highway driving patterns on the public road, then replicated that human behaviour through electronic controls. The Open Pilot system only works on highways at present and does not function at speeds of less than 18mph in the Civic or 25mph in the ILX, and the more complex scenarios of urban traffic are not supported. Drivers can disengage the software by pressing the brake or accelerator, or via a cancel switch.
Comma.ai claims that Open Pilot's functionality is "about on par" with the original 2014 version of Tesla's Autopilot, but not quite as advanced as Autopilot's current, second iteration. However, it does claim to outperform "all other manufacturers". And while Open Pilot only currently works with the Neo box, Comma.ai also aims to support the generic hardware being developed by the Open Source Car Control project.
Hotz previously turned down a job offer from Tesla boss Elon Musk. In a photograph posted by technology website theverge.com from Open Pilot's San Francisco launch this week, Comma.ai's priorities are listed on a whiteboard as follows:
"1. Fun 2. Solve self-driving cars. 3. Profit?"