Openpilot is Comma AI trying to eat Tesla Full Self-Driving's launch

Openpilot is Comma Ai's take on the Tesla FSD 6 photos
Photo: Comma AI | Edited
Openpilot is Comma Ai's take on the Tesla FSDOpenpilot is Comma Ai's take on the Tesla FSDcomma three running openpilotcomma three devicecomma three wiring harness
Everybody heard about Tesla's Full Self-Driving, although the jury's still out on whether this is autonomous driving software or a driver assistance system. Comma AI's openpilot is a less-known software that aims to bring similar self-driving features to most modern vehicles.
Autonomous driving is not doing great, with companies disappearing or scaling back operations. Driving autonomously is promising but requires huge amounts of resources invested in computing power and data mining and analyzing capabilities. Right now, autonomous-driving efforts don't seem to pay off, despite some bold statements from people involved. Autonomous cars make mistakes and crash, and many wonder if it's indeed possible to have cars that drive themselves.

Elon Musk was certain in 2020 that full autonomy was possible in "two years," although he loves deadlines that contain the "2" number. Tesla's Full Self-Driving software has made progress since then, but not enough for Tesla to assume responsibility for its decisions, thus deeming it Level 3+ autonomous software. Instead, Tesla officially calls it a Level 2 driver assist system, which would be humiliating if the software were self-aware. But is it possible that other companies are further ahead on the way to autonomy than Tesla?

Comma AI is the company that wants to beat Tesla at its own game with a vision-based self-driving solution. Its founder, George Hotz, is a renowned software hacker who became famous for jailbreaking the iPhone 4 and later Android phones, not mentioning a brawl with Sony after hacking the PlayStation 3 console. Hotz and Musk have a long history, and in 2015 they almost stroke a deal to develop the Autopilot together. Musk eventually kept Mobileye as a supplier, only to lose it one year later, following Autopilot's first deadly crash.

comma three running openpilot
Photo: Comma AI
George Hotz (or geohot, as he was known in his early days) went on with his company Comma AI, which later developed the openpilot software. The first version of the software, installed on a 2016 Acura ILX via a hardware device called comma one, provoked the ire of California DMV, which issued a cease and desist letter. Six months later, the NHTSA informed Hotz that his product was legally required to comply with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The agency wanted Hotz to provide documents that confirmed the compliance. Instead, Hotz panicked and announced from Shenzhen that the comma one was canceled.

One good thing that emerged from this brawl was that Comma Ai open-sourced its self-driving software as openpilot in November 2016. This allowed the development to continue as a research project. George Hotz returned in 2018 as the head of the research team, one of his many returns, actually, as Hotz couldn't make up his mind about it. The most important milestone was set on January 2020, when Comm Ai debuted the $999 comma two driver-assist system at CES in Las Vegas.

The current version of the comma hardware was released in 2021 as the comma three. It already comes with the latest version of the openpilot software (0.9.1 currently), and it plugs into the car's CAN bus to perform its magic. The device features two fish-eye cameras oriented to the front and a long-distance camera oriented to the rear to scan the surroundings. This sounds like a joke compared to Tesla's eight cameras, but it can prove a very competent driver assistant.

The device taps into the car's existing driver-assist technology and can control steering, accelerator, and brakes. They are a prerequisite for the Comma AI openpilot to work with a specific vehicle. Rest assured, any car that offers adaptive cruise control (ACC) and lane keep assist/lane centering assist (LKAS/LCA) should work. The features you get depend on the particular car model the comma three device is installed on. Most would be augmented with automated lane centering that works at all speeds and adaptive cruise control that can automatically resume from a stop. The experimental mode can also add traffic light and stop sign handling, akin to the FSD Beta in Tesla cars.

comma three device
Photo: Comma AI
Like FSD Beta, openpilot uses machine learning to plot the best path for the car within the lane, hence the improved lane centering function. Note that this might not work on tight curves on older car models because of the limitations of the steering assist system. Openpilot can also maintain a safe distance from the vehicles in front, in stop-and-go traffic, with no user intervention.

Openpilot has a very effective driver monitoring system. When it sees that the driver is distracted, it issues a warning. If the driver doesn't react, after six seconds, openpilot can slow the car to a stop. Of course, it can also make lane changes while checking the blind spot monitor system. If another vehicle is detected, it blocks the lane change.

One of the best features is its growing community of developers. Thanks to it, certain brands and models can benefit from a deeper integration of the comm three and openpilot. This can open a new world of features, such as experimental stop-light detection. Openpilot is still not integrated with the navigation system, so it doesn't follow your route, but it will surely do that in the future.

The comma three is available for $1,499, but it would probably set you back a little more because you would also need a compatible wiring harness to connect it to the car's information infrastructure. The device is compatible with over 200 vehicles but works especially well with late-model Hyundai and Toyota vehicles, as Comma AI says on its website.
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About the author: Cristian Agatie
Cristian Agatie profile photo

After his childhood dream of becoming a "tractor operator" didn't pan out, Cristian turned to journalism, first in print and later moving to online media. His top interests are electric vehicles and new energy solutions.
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