Home / Entrepreneurs / This 26-year-old hacker can make a self-driving car, but can he take on Tesla?

This 26-year-old hacker can make a self-driving car, but can he take on Tesla?

George Hotz, the latest Silicon Valley startup founder to get a multimillion-dollar check from venture capitalists, went for a ride in a Rolls-Royce around San Francisco on Monday.

At 26, Hotz thinks he could teach the legendary vehicle a few tricks. Braking should be smoother, he says. Accelerations could be gentler. The vehicle should run each time as if the best limo driver in the world was behind the wheel. “You don’t want the champagne to spill,” Hotz says.

Related: Self-driving cars coming to a college campus near you as price of tech drops

Hotz’s solution is to get rid of the driver. His startup, Comma, has received $3.1m from well-known investment firm Andreessen Horowitz to make conversion kits that turn normal cars into semi-self-driving cars. Hotz plans to start selling these by the end of the year for Honda, Acura and potentially other brands.

For many consumers, automated vehicles still feel like science fiction and the province of giant research labs at Google, Uber and General Motors (GM). But there’s increasing evidence that many drivers’ first interaction with a self-driving vehicle will be one engineered by a small startup. Some of these companies are making automated public shuttles, or exploring ways to make existing cars autonomous in certain circumstances.

“We are going to win self-driving cars,” Hotz said in a recent interview. “The bar is low.”

That might seem like bold talk from a twenty-something who quit his day job at an artificial intelligence company last summer. But Hotz isn’t shy of attention. He recently challenged Tesla-founder Elon Musk to a race to build the first vehicle that can navigate San Francisco’s tourist-packed Golden Gate Bridge on its own. Musk hasn’t responded.

“I think we can maybe build better self-driving cars,” Hotz says. “He can build a better rocket.”

And when asked what he’d do with his new venture funds, Hotz said he’d focus on hiring the best machine-learning programmers he could find. “Who I really want to hire is 20 more copies of me,” he says.

George Hotz, a notable hacker, is pictured in 2007 at age 17. He holds an iPhone after breaking the lock that ties Apple’s iPhone to AT&T’s wireless network, freeing it for use on the networks of other carriers. Photograph: Jeff Christensen/AP

He’s had some success. In December, Hotz made a name for himself when he showed Bloomberg Businessweek how he made an Acura drive itself down the highway.

Hotz had hacked the car’s onboard computer. He then added a camera and a radar. Suddenly, the vehicle was cruising down Bay Area freeways as Hotz sat in the driver seat, his hands not on the steering wheel.

The video prompted a cease and desist letter from the California department of motor vehicles (DMV), which is still working its way through rules for self-driving vehicles.

Hotz says the matter has since been cleared up, since Comma’s technology is only meant for highway driving and functions as a sort of cruise control with automatic steering. Besides, “a cease and desist letter is just the legal opinion of one party,” he says.

The DMV didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

By the end of the year, Comma wants to sell consumers car-automation conversion kits for less than $1,000. Hotz is tightlipped about what those will involve, but they will at least require some sort of alterations to a car’s onboard computer and hardware for the car to determine what’s going on around it.

For that to work, automakers either need to open up their cars’ systems to Hotz or, more likely, Hotz needs to figure out how to hack into them. That’s because many carmakers, including General Motors, Toyota and Tesla, are spending millions on developing the same technology. Last month, GM bought Cruise, a startup similar to Comma, for about $1bn.

Related: General Motors acquires self-driving car startup Cruise Automation

So far, Hotz has only disclosed how he hacked an Acura, yet he believes he can use the same techniques to hack other cars made by Acura’s parent company, Honda.

Car automation has become increasingly democratized as much of the hardware behind the technology has fallen in price and the machine-learning techniques have been open sourced.

Hotz believes his vehicles can beat out the competition if he can teach them to be smarter than others. He is particularly proud that his Acura’s artificial intelligence learned that if it is driving alongside a bike lane with a moving cyclist, it should move a little more to the left.

Or as he put it: “The car is starting to do some fancy stuff.”

These days, Hotz is realistic that Tesla’s Musk probably won’t publicly acknowledge his bet. But he hasn’t lost hope that the mega-CEO will take interest in his upstart company or pursue a partnership. And like almost all Silicon Valley startup founders, he remains a bit of a Tesla fanboy.

Referring to the company’s recently announced new sedan, Hotz said, “The Model 3 looks awesome. I want one.”

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