Comma.ai pulls out of US after receiving NHTSA Special Order

In a flurry of tweets, Comma.ai founder George Hotz seems prepared to bypass regulators by ignoring the US entirely, even though he had to have seen this coming.

Andrew Krok Reviews Editor / Cars
Cars are Andrew's jam, as is strawberry. After spending years as a regular ol' car fanatic, he started working his way through the echelons of the automotive industry, starting out as social-media director of a small European-focused garage outside of Chicago. From there, he moved to the editorial side, penning several written features in Total 911 Magazine before becoming a full-time auto writer, first for a local Chicago outlet and then for CNET Cars.
Andrew Krok
3 min read

Nobody likes dealing with US federal regulations, but a great many companies suck it up and do it anyway so their products can end up with US buyers. It appears Comma.ai and its semi-autonomous driving system would rather take its toys to China instead of dealing with the feds, though.

Comma.ai founder George Hotz sent out sent out a series of tweets Friday, claiming that Comma.ai is pulling out of the US market in response to requests from federal regulators. Its first product, Comma One, claimed to add semi-autonomous capabilities to vehicles for approximately $1,000.

"Would much rather spend my life building amazing tech than dealing with regulators and lawyers," Hotz said via Twitter. "The comma one is canceled. comma.ai [sic] will be exploring other products and markets."

The company received a Special Order from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, requesting detailed descriptions on Comma One's system, how it works, how drivers will use it, and how it won't interfere with various federal safety standards. According to the Special Order, ignoring this request and moving forward with Comma One could result in civil penalties of up to $21,000 per day.

"We are concerned that your product would put the safety of your customers and other road users at risk," writes Paul A. Hemmersbaugh, NHTSA's chief counsel, in the Special Order request. "It is insufficient to assert, as you do, that your product 'does not remove any of the driver's responsibilities from the task of driving.'"

It continued: "As you are undoubtedly aware, there is a high likelihood that some drivers will use your product in a manner that exceeds its intended purpose," the letter continues. "Installation of your product could adversely affect the performance of the vehicle's safety systems, or otherwise render the vehicle unsafe."

Watch this: We go riding with George Hotz and his $1,000 autonomous car

"The Department of Transportation is committed to promoting the safe and responsible development of automated technologies," wrote Bryan Thomas, NHTSA spokesman, in an email. "We had concerns about reports regarding the safety of the comma.ai product and sent a request to the company for more information about how the product was installed and operated. Mr. Hotz's decision to cancel the product is his own."

George Hotz did not immediately return requests for comment.

It's a bit strange, this. Hotz should have known that attempting to sell a system that retroactively adds semi-autonomous driving or safety features would require some collaboration with federal regulators. Being a tech startup doesn't excuse one from the bajillion rules regarding vehicle operation. Just ask Tesla.

In fact, Tesla's part of the reason that this letter needed to be sent out. Its Autopilot suite of active and passive driver-assistance systems has come under fire in recent months, as drivers have ignored warnings to pay attention and have ended up in collisions as a result. Mercedes-Benz also caught some flak for referring to its Drive Pilot system with the words "self-driving" and "autonomous."

The industry is in murky waters right now. With the preponderance of early driver-assistance systems such as Autopilot, Drive Pilot and others, the public runs the risk of overhyping and overstating the capabilities these systems have. Any system that goes on sale to the public must not only comply with the letter of the law, it must make users well aware that they are not replacements for human beings.

Comma One was a plan to bring semi-autonomous systems to cars for about $1,000. With it being that cheap, and potentially that easy to add these capabilities to cars that aren't explicitly built for that purpose, it was all but inevitable that the government would step in.

The Special Order itself makes this abundantly clear: "This 'aftermarket upgrade,' as you describe it, is replacement motor vehicle equipment and your company is a manufacturer of motor vehicle equipment subject to the requirements of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act), 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301, under NHTSA's oversight. It is essential that you are aware of and in full compliance with your legal responsibilities to ensure vehicle safety before introducing this product into commerce."

How did he not see this coming? That's the real question.

Update, 11:29 a.m. ET: Added NHTSA comment.