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George Hotz Is Taking on Google and Tesla Self-Driving Cars by Himself

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Autodidact hacks his own self-driving car using off-the-shelf parts. If this doesn't prove that "fast following" is a lot cheaper than true innovation, I don't know what will.

Bonus: He's hilarious. 

As a scrawny 17-year-old known online as “geohot,” Hotz was the first person to hack Apple’s iPhone, allowing anyone—well, anyone with a soldering iron and some software smarts—to use the phone on networks other than AT&T’s. He later became the first person to run through a gantlet of hard-core defense systems in the Sony PlayStation 3 and crack that open, too. Over the past couple years, Hotz had been on a walkabout, trying to decide what he wanted to do next, before hitting on the self-driving car idea as perhaps his most audacious hack yet.

“Hold this,” he says, dumping a wireless keyboard in my lap before backing out of the garage. “But don’t touch any buttons, or we’ll die.” Hotz explains that his self-driving setup, like the autopilot feature on a Tesla, is meant for highways, not chaotic city streets. He drives through San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood and then onto Interstate 280.

With Hotz still holding the wheel, the Acura’s lidar paints a pixelated image on the dash screen of everything around us, including the freeway walls and other cars. A blue line charts the path the car is taking, and a green line shows the path the self-driving software recommends. The two match up pretty well, which means the technology is working. After a couple miles, Hotz lets go of the wheel and pulls the trigger on the joystick, kicking the car into self-driving mode. He does this as we head into an S curve at 65 miles per hour. I say a silent prayer. Hotz shouts, “You got this, car! You got this!”

The car does, more or less, have it. It stays true around the first bend. Near the end of the second, the Acura suddenly veers near an SUV to the right; I think of my soon-to-be-fatherless children; the car corrects itself. Amazed, I ask Hotz what it felt like the first time he got the car to work.

“Dude,” he says, “the first time it worked was this morning.”

He's not a fan of Facebook. 

From 2007 on, Hotz became a coding vagabond. He briefly attended Rochester Institute of Technology, did a couple five-month internships at Google, worked at SpaceX for four months, then at Facebook for eight. The jobs left him unsatisfied and depressed. At Google, he found very smart developers who were often assigned mundane tasks like fixing bugs in a Web browser; at Facebook, brainy coders toiled away trying to figure out how to make users click on ads. “It scares me what Facebook is doing with AI,” Hotz says. “They’re using machine-learning techniques to coax people into spending more time on Facebook.”

Breakthrough work on self-driving cars began about a decade ago.

Darpa, the research arm of the Department of Defense, sponsored the Grand Challenge, a contest to see how far autonomous vehicles could travel. On a course through the desert in the inaugural 2004 event, the top vehicle completed just 7 of 150 miles. In subsequent years, the vehicles became quite good, completing both desert and city courses.

It took a great deal of sophisticated, expensive technology to make those early cars work. Some of the Grand Challenge contestants lugged the equivalent of small data centers in their vehicles. Exteriors were usually covered with an array of sensors typically found in research labs. Today, Google, which hired many of the entrants, has dozens of cars in its fleet that use similar technology, although dramatic advances in computing power, sensors, and the autonomous software have lowered the overall cost.

Artificial-intelligence software and consumer-grade cameras, Hotz contends, have become good enough to allow a clever tinkerer to create a low-cost self-driving system for just about any car. The technology he’s building represents an end run on much more expensive systems being designed by Google, Uber, the major automakers, and, if persistent rumors and numerous news reports are true, Apple. More short term, he thinks he can challenge Mobileye, the Israeli company that supplies Tesla Motors, BMW, Ford Motor, General Motors, and others with their current driver-assist technology. “It’s absurd,” Hotz says of Mobileye. “They’re a company that’s behind the times, and they have not caught up.”

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