Look Ma, No Hands

Do you have a sense of adventure, some technical know-how, and about $700? Relying on the free open source software and hardware designs supplied by Comma.ai, you may be able to turn your newer model Honda or Acura into a self-driving car.

You wouldn't be the first.

A college student from the University of Nebraska (Omaha) recently altered his 2016 Honda Civic so that the steering, brakes, and accelerator are controlled by a DIY self-driving kit. The college senior appears to be a bellwether for a growing movement of researchers and hobbyists experimenting with homegrown solutions and available software and hardware plans, as opposed to buying a Telsa with AutoPilot.  

College senior Brevan Jorgenson spent about $700 on parts to build his kit, including a camera that senses the road and other cars. As first reported in MIT Technology Review, Jorgenson downloaded the free plans as soon as Comma.ai posted them online in November, and took his first self-drive in late January.

It was also most likely perfectly legal, as long as Jorgenson was following relevant Nebraska laws related to responsible driving. For those looking to outfit their own vehicle with a self-driving kit, there is a robust online community of enthusiasts, instructions from Comma.ai, and more in-depth education supplied by Udacity.

Founded by hacking wunderkind George Hotz, Comma.ai tagline's is: ghostriding for the masses. Since announcing plans last year to sell a product that would turn your car into a self-driving vehicle, the company has pivoted towards freely giving away its software. This pivot was in reaction to a strongly-worded letter the company received from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees companies selling vehicles and products used to modify them.

Instead of the self-driving kits being bought from a company, they are being built by Do-It-Yourselfers. The goal is that bugs will be worked out through crowdsourced experimentation.

In a recent CNBC interview, Amnon Shashua, the Chief Technology Officer for Mobileye, laid out the three main aspects when building an building autonomous cars: 

1. Sense the road

2. Map the road

3. Negotiate your place on the road

Correctly mapping the road has become a hot topic in the world of autonomous vehicles, with the recent report that Uber's self-driving vehicle failed to register six red lights in San Francisco. 

From a technical standpoint, the self-driving kits built using Comma.ai's free software and hardware plans do not fall under the strict classification of autonomous vehicles. The alterations made to the vehicle are classified as an adaptive cruise control and lane-keep assist. 

George Hotz (Credit: Getty Images)

Hotz is bullish on the prospects of self-driving hobbyists crowdsourcing solutions and changing the world in the process. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he stated that if Tesla is the Apple for self-driving cars, Comma aims to be the Android. 

As Hotz has mentioned in multiple interviews, drivers are responsible for complying with local laws and regulation, which vary state to state. An accident may also open up the potential for civil liability. Drivers should be paying attention to the road at all times, which is encouraged by Comma's software. If a driver does not touch the steering wheel for five minutes, there is a notification. The system also asks for human intervention whenever there is an issue.

And given that law moves like a tortoise and technology like a hare, there is a most likely a significant amount of reactionary legislation that may appear down the road. But unlike most technology that has been added to the driving experience (such as smartphones) that increases distraction and decrease safety, one of the major goals of self-driving vehicles is to have safer roads.

That may be a future worth hacking.

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