Thanks to recent software updates, the most sophisticated systems—Cadillac‘s Super Cruise and Tesla‘s Autopilot—are more capable today than they were initially. This report on those systems includes a lesser known third player. For $998, upstart Comma.ai sells an aftermarket dash cam and wiring harness that taps into and overrides the factory-installed assistance systems in many Honda and Toyota models as well as some Chrysler, Kia, and Lexus vehicles, among others. When activated, Comma.ai’s Openpilot software assumes control over the steering, brakes, and throttle, and it reduces the frequent reminders to keep your hands on the wheel. As you might imagine, automakers do not endorse this hack.
[…this bit is where they discuss the Chrysler and Tesla systems in the article…]
Comma.ai’s control is based almost exclusively on a single windshield-mounted camera. A model-specific wiring harness plugs into the vehicle’s stock front camera behind the rearview mirror. That’s where it taps into the car’s communication network, which is used for everything from the power windows to the wheel-speed sensors. There it inserts new messages to actuate the steering, throttle, and brakes on its command while blocking the factory communication. However, certain safety systems, such as forward-collision alert, remain functional. There are no warning lights to indicate that the vehicle senses anything is amiss. And if you start the car with the Comma.ai unit unplugged, everything reverts back to stock. There is no sophisticated calibration procedure. Just stick the supplied GoPro mount somewhere roughly in the middle of the windshield and pop in the Eon camera display. After doing nothing more than driving for a few minutes, the system announces it’s ready.
Given its lack of sensors, we were shocked at the sophisticated control of the system and its ability to center the car in its lane, both on and off the highway. Importantly, Comma.ai collects the data from the 2500 units currently in use in order to learn from errors and make the system smarter. Compared with the others, Openpilot wasn’t quite as locked on its lane, and its control on two-lane roads wasn’t as solid as Autopilot’s, but its performance didn’t degrade perceptibly at night as Super Cruise’s did. However, the following distance, which isn’t adjustable, is roughly double that of Autopilot and Super Cruise in their closest settings, making us feel as though we were endlessly holding up traffic.
Like Super Cruise, the Comma.ai system employs a driver-facing camera to monitor engagement and doesn’t require regular steering inputs. Unlike Super Cruise, it lacks infrared lighting to enable nighttime vision. That will be part of the next hardware update, Hotz says.
Obviously, the system is reliant on the donor vehicle’s hardware, including the car’s steering-torque limitations. So our Honda Passport couldn’t keep up with the sharpest corners and would regularly flash warning messages to the driver, even when the system handled the maneuver appropriately. Hotz promises the next release will dial back the too-frequent warning messages.
Hotz says he has had conversations with car companies about selling his tech, but he doesn’t see the top-down approach as the way to win. Instead, he envisions Comma.ai as a dealer-installed add-on. But that will be difficult, as both Honda and Toyota are against the installation of the system in their vehicles. Toyota has gone so far as to say it will void the factory warranty. This seems shortsighted, though, as the carmakers could learn a lot from what Comma.ai has accomplished.
Hotz is indeed a very big name and it’s very very cool to see that he’s managed to get this working for under only $1000,-
Pretty amazing to see that he can go toe to toe with the giants and sit on an even keel technically, for way way less money.