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Hands-on with Comma.ai's add-on Level 2 autonomous tech

Comma.ai treats cars like computers and loads them with Level 2 semiautomated tech.

Evan Miller/Roadshow

Here at Roadshow we love all the advancements we're seeing as we head to full-on self-driving cars. Sure, the tech isn't there yet, but manufacturers are on their way with adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist systems becoming more and more common every year. Heck, some cars even have semiautomated steering options available.

George Hotz, however, feels manufacturers aren't moving fast enough. Hotz, the 28-year-old CEO of Comma.ai -- and once notorious for hacking the iPhone -- is promising to bring smarter cars to the masses. Comma.ai's Openpilot is open-source, Level 2, partial-automation, affordable add-on hardware. Neither Hotz nor Comma.ai is claiming Openpilot offers fully autonomous capability. On the contrary, this system is designed to be assistive tech, essentially, a partially automated commute smoother.

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Last time we met, Hotz stayed in the driver's seat of an Acura ILX, but this time, I'm sitting in the left seat of a late-model Honda Civic, getting the full experience of letting the car take on some of the dirty work.

The rearview mirror has been removed on this Civic demonstration model (an obviously temporary expediency), and in its place is the hardware that makes it all happen: the company's Panda OBD-II sensor and a Giraffe connector that gathers data from the car's radar. Additionally, a modified OnePlus phone functions as a dashcam. Dubbed the Eon, it sits unobtrusively in the middle of the windshield.

Everything you need to run at Level 2 autonomy.

Evan Miller/Roadshow

Currently, the technology is better suited for highway driving, much like Nissan's ProPilot Assist, Cadillac's Super Cruise and Tesla's Autopilot. Unlike some other systems, it can't change lanes, or recognize red lights or stop signs.

As we hop on to an uncrowded Highway 280, a steering wheel icon on the Eon dashcam turns blue, indicating that Openpilot has enough information from lane markings to start running. I hit the factory cruise control button on the steering wheel, Openpilot takes over and I remove my hands from the steering wheel.

The system employs the brakes and gas to keep the car at a set distance from the vehicle in front. If you're thinking that sounds like adaptive cruise control, not something new, you're right. If you've driven a new car in the past few years, you've probably experienced similar functionality.

Comma.ai's system is a little different from most intelligent cruise control systems in that it doesn't let the driver set a preferred following distance, which could be problematic in stop-and-go traffic, when folks take any gap as an invitation to squeeze into a lane. However, out here on a lightly trafficked highway, it's no big deal, and I'm comfortable with the distance the system has chosen.

It's the steering intervention that unnerves me at first. The camera- and radar-based system keeps the Civic bang-on center of the lane, but as we approach a curve in the road, it takes everything I have not to grab the wheel. This isn't a ding on Openpilot; I have the same inclination with Pro Pilot, Autopilot and Super Cruise as well. Old habits die hard, people.

But the Civic takes the curve easily, remaining centered and making a mockery of my nerves. Unlike Super Cruise, which is geofenced to only work on roads that GM has mapped with lidar, Openpilot isn't map-based. It won't slow down for curves in the road, but Hotz says maps are coming by the end of the year.

A hacked smartphone functions as the Eon dashcam.

Evan Miller/Roadshow

As we approach a lane split, I'm a little nervous to see which way the car will choose. I needn't have worried. Openpilot always defaults to the left with a lane split, as it assumes the lane split to the right is an exit, in which case the driver would take over anyway. It may not always be correct, but I'd rather have a system that always reacts consistently to make it easier to be ready for it.

As a Level 2 system, Openpilot still requires that the driver pay attention. The Eon uses a camera to detect the driver's attention level. Look away for two seconds, and it triggers a visual warning on the dashcam. Four seconds, and it produces an audible chime. Look away for six seconds, and the accelerator is disengaged, although the brakes and steering still work.

During my all-too-brief 10-minute stint using Openpilot on the highway, I experienced zero disengagements from the system itself. I did initiate a few disengagements manually, by changing lanes, but other than that, my hands were off the wheel for testing purposes the whole time.

As we head back to Comma.ai HQ, I convince Hotz to let me try Openpilot on suburban streets. It's the closest I'll get to stop-and-go traffic and I'm curious how the system will behave. The Civic comes to a smooth stop behind a lead car waiting at a light. Again, this is nothing new. However, while some other systems require a tap on the gas or resume button if the car is stopped for more than 3 seconds, Openpilot can stay engaged for as long as it is stopped. This is what I like most about Openpilot. Driving in stop-and-go traffic and having to constantly push the resume button is a pain. Openpilot has this part right.

At its heart, Openpilot is a crowdsourced artificial intelligence-based advanced driver assist. Drivers have always been able to send their data back to Comma.ai through the EON dashcam, but now, they can get a bit more granular. A new Explorer dashboard allows users to annotate any disengagements the system had on their drive. Whether it was because a lane change was necessary, a turn was too sharp or the driver wanted to take an exit, that information is sent back to Comma.ai to improve the next-generation of Openpilot.

CEO George Hotz is trying to map a better way to Level 2 autonomy.

Mapbox

Currently Openpilot works with many late-model Honda, Acura, Toyota and Lexus vehicles. If you're interested, check here to see if your car is supported. And while the software is open source, you'll still need to purchase the hardware to make it all run. The Eon dashcam is $699, while the Panda OBD-II interface is $199 and the Giraffe wire connector runs $60.

While this was a short drive and more long-term testing is needed, on first go-around Openpilot is impressive. Make no mistake, drivers still need to pay attention, so it's far from any kind of fully autonomous system. But it works as well or better than many manufacturers' built-in technology.