TECH: Comma One Self-Driving Car Device Cancelled

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Comma One had big plans for turning your car into a semi-autonomous vehicle, but those plans have been abruptly canceled. The self-driving wonder hit a snag with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week.

Comma.ai planned to sell their device for $999 with shipping set to happen by the end of the year. It would also require a $24 monthly subscription, which would make this a pricey way to turn your old ride into an autonomous vehicle. Still, for those keen on getting their hands on self-driving technology, the Comma One promised an easy way to do it without having to buy a whole new car.

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Company founder George Hotz proudly announced the Comma One at TechCrunch Disrupt SF and it seemed like the project was on track. After a year in development, they were ready to launch for select Hondas and Acuras equipped with lane-keeping assist and had plans to expand the number of compatible cars over time.

It all sounded great and Comma.ai even had t-shirts made proclaiming, “We are gonna be so rich.” Looks like they might want to see if they can get a refund on those things.

A letter on Thursday from NHTSA requested proof the devices were safe. If that information wasn’t provided, then NHTSA threatened to levy fines of up to $21,000 per day and block the sale of the Comma One completely.

Rather than turn over proof of the device’s safety, Comma.ai completely pulled the product and pulled out of the US market. In a series of tweets, Comma.ai said,

It shouldn’t be a surprise to Comma.ai that NHTSA stepped in with questions. Regulators are paying more attention to self-driving technology as it becomes more common and poses a growing risk on our highways. The idea is that self-driving technology will make us safer and that’s likely true in the long run. It’s in the short term that there’s the potential for problems.

That potential has already been demonstrated with Tesla’s Autopilot feature. The name implies you can take your hands off the wheel and stop paying attention. The manual says otherwise, but despite Tesla clearly stating that drivers do need to pay attention and keep their hands on the wheel, people don’t listen.

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There were several accidents, one with a fatality, when people used Autopilot incorrectly. It’s not so much that Tesla is doing something wrong, but that we humans are fallible creatures and we aren’t using the technology as intended.

That gives NHTSA good reason to carefully scrutinize any kind of self-driving technology coming to market. Whether it’s from a major automaker or a small start-up, the technology needs to be proven safe. Companies like Comma.ai may have great ideas and they make work beautifully, but without the data to backup their safety claims, that tech is not going to make it to the road.

Comma.ai had a choice. They could have provided proof of their device’s safety, but dealing with federal regulators is not an easy task. Instead, they completely left the US for presumably less regulated roads elsewhere. Even that might not be enough. Germany also took issue with Tesla’s Autopilot, so running to a less regulated country is only a temporary solution.

The only real solution is to make sure that this technology is safe before any attempt is made to sell it to the public.

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Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin