Hacker sparks tiff with Tesla after building his own autonomous car [Video]

Hacker sparks tiff with Tesla after building his own autonomous car [Video]

A well-known computer hacker has created an autonomous car in his garage over the course of a month that he claims outperforms Tesla’s Model S with AutoPilot.

George Hotz broke onto the hacking scene when he was a teenager for becoming the first person to crack an Apple iPhone. Hotz followed up that feat by hacking into Sony’s PlatStation3. Hotz has been somewhat off the radar for the last few years, jumping from job to job and competing in a few cyber security competitions, but the 26-year-old has re-emerge as a possibly disruptive force in the arena of autonomous automobiles.

The most recent chapter of Hotz’s story began in 2012 when he took up an interest in artificial intelligence and enrolled at Carnegie Mellon University to pursue a Ph.D. A few years later Hotz landed a job with AI start-up firm Vicarious in Silicon Valley, but quit this past July. Shortly thereafter a friend introduced Hotz to Tesla founder Elon Musk. The two met at Tesla’s Fremont, California, factory, at which time Hotz proposed an interesting arrangement — if he could come up with self-driving technology that was better than Mobileye’s, which supplies parts for Tesla’s autonomous AutoPilot feature, Musk would award him a lucrative contract.

According to Hotz, Musk initially agreed but kept changing the terms of the deal and ultimately offered him a job with Tesla.

“Frankly, I think you should just work at Tesla,” Musk wrote to Hotz in an e-mail. “I’m happy to work out a multimillion-dollar bonus with a longer time horizon that pays out as soon as we discontinue MobilEye.”

Hotz replied: “I appreciate the offer, but like I’ve said, I’m not looking for a job. I’ll ping you when I crush MobilEye.”

Hotz got to work in the garage of his San Francisco home, purchasing a 2016 Acura ILX and about $20,000 worth of off-the-shelf electronics. After a month of development, Hotz had created his very own autonomous car.

Bloomberg Business was able to sample Hotz’s car and came away quite impressed. Unlike other autonomous vehicles from manufacturers like Tesla, Hotz designed his self-driving system around AI rather than pre-programed instructions; Hotz system works by learning how humans drive, not by following a certain line of code.

In order to program his system driving system for the first time, Hotz simply drove around for two hours, with the on-board computers observing and learning from his actions behind the wheel. The more Hotz drives, the better the system gets.

Early on the system performed like an inexperienced teenager, but several hours of learning later and the system is operating like an experienced driver. For example, when Hotz’s autonomous Acura comes upon a bicyclists, it moves over not because that’s how it was programmed, but because it learned to do that by watching Hotz drive. In order to get the computer more learning time, Hotz is signing up to be an Uber driver.

Although it appears as though Hotz could really be on to something when it comes to how autonomous vehicles function, Tesla in not a believer. In fact, Tesla is so against Hotz’s work that it published a correction to the article it didn’t even write.

“We think it is extremely unlikely that a single person or even a small company that lacks extensive engineering validation capability will be able to produce an autonomous driving system that can be deployed to production vehicles,” Tesla said on its corporate blog in a post titled, Correction to article: “The First Person to Hack the iPhone Built a Self-Driving Car.” “It may work as a limited demo on a known stretch of road — Tesla had such a system two years ago — but then requires enormous resources to debug over millions of miles of widely differing roads.”

Tesla continued: “This is the true problem of autonomy: getting a machine learning system to be 99% correct is relatively easy, but getting it to be 99.9999% correct, which is where it ultimately needs to be, is vastly more difficult.”

The electric automaker also took issue with Hotz’s claim that its entire self-driving suite was sourced from MobilEye. “We should also clarify that Tesla’s autopilot system was designed and developed in-house. Were this simply a matter of repackaging a vendor’s technology, as claimed in the article, we would not be unique in offering this groundbreaking experience in production vehicles. If other car companies could meet or exceed the Tesla product by buying an off-the-shelf solution, they would do so.”

Hotz plans to continue working on his autonomous tech for the next several months before showing it to Musk once again. We’ll be anxious to hear the result of their next meeting.

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