by Mike Montgomery
George Hotz is one of the best-known hackers in America. At just 17 years old, he was the first person to unlock an iPhone so it could be used by multiple carriers. He cracked the security on the PS3 and was sued by Sony. The two settled out of court with Hotz promising he would never again tinker with Sony security.
After years of angering corporations, Hotz decided to go legit, trading in his black hat for a white one, signifying his status as a newly minted good guy. He worked for both Facebook and Google before starting his own company Comma.ai, last year. At this year’s TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, he unveiled the company’s first product — the Comma One, a $999 box that could help make Honda Civics and some Acuras almost self-driving cars.
But then, last week, any excitement Hotz’s announcement had created disappeared because of some regulatory intervention. All it took was one sharply worded letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for Hotz to pack up his toys and go home. The letter, which Hotz posted here, said that the NHTSA needed to ensure that the device didn’t have a “safety-related defect” that might put drivers in danger.
In a series of tweets, Hotz said: “Would much rather spend my life building amazing technology than dealing with regulators and lawyers. It isn’t worth it. The comma one [sic] is canceled. Comma.ai will be exploring other markets and products. Hello from Shenzhen, China.”
But Hotz’s story isn’t about a new product being regulated to death; it’s about entrepreneurs who fail to take the realities of our government into account when they start to build their companies. Certainly, the NHTSA was simply doing its job ensuring public safety, and perhaps the agency could have communicated its concerns in gentler way rather than Napstering the potentially revolutionary device. But had Hotz gone into this with a team that understood the regulatory environment, this axle-breaking speed bump could have been avoided.
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