George Hotz is a famed hacker turned software engineer who recently made waves for retrofitting an Acura with homemade software that enabled the otherwise standard vehicle to semi-autonomously drive down a highway. Hotz had built a semi-autonomous car out of his garage; he planned to do it again en masse, and he wanted to take on the likes of Tesla and Google in the process.
As it turns out, investors are keen to help Hotz do just that. Today, Andreessen Horowitz partner Chris Dixon confirmed a previous report and announced that the firm was leading a $3.1 million round of funding in Hotz’s company, Comma.ai.
In the company’s march to full autonomy, Hotz plans to use the cash infusion in his otherwise self-funded company to add a few more engineers to his staff of four full-time employees, and to take Comma to launch by the end of the year, when he hopes to begin selling an aftermarket semi-autonomous kit for under $1000.
“I’m a big believer in keeping [the team] as small as possible,” Hotz told Re/code. “We’re really looking for the absolute top of the top. Right now, I’m looking for the kind of person who can make YouTube in a month.”
The software won’t be able to work in all makes and models, but Hotz said that most 2012 cars and older should be able to support the software — some more than others.
“The absolute minimum requirement is that the car has to have electronic power steering and [automatic] braking,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in disruption and working from the bottom up. So when we launch, we’re going to say to automakers, ‘Look, if you want your car to be able to be fitted [with the software], you have to give us access to your API.'”
When asked whether he was optimistic about automakers opening up their API to him, Hotz said, “Am I optimistic that they’ll do it in the next year? No. But the world I come from is hacking. This is what I do. Maybe you don’t have to provide me your API, maybe we can make it work with just software modifications.”
At launch, Comma software will enable cars already on the road to autonomously navigate highways and interstates, much like Tesla’s autopilot feature, except Comma isn’t placing a limit on how fast the vehicle can go while operating the software.
“You have Mercedes, which requires you to have one hand on the steering wheel at all times,” Hotz said. “It’s supposed to be safer. But now what you have is a system operating outside the spec [that you’re accustomed to]. You’re making a safety assumption that’s not there. We don’t believe in artificially limiting our users. But obviously we encourage our users not to speed.”
Dixon’s announcement that a16z is investing in Comma comes just a few weeks after General Motors bought aftermarket autonomous tech startup Cruise — backed by Spark Capital, Maven Ventures and Y Combinator, among others — for $1 billion. The sizable acquisition signaled a few things to both investors and startups: Most importantly, there are buyers for autonomous tech, and they are willing to shell out the big bucks to get their skin in the game.
Ultimately, Hotz said, Comma, like other autonomous tech companies, wants to be able to provide fully autonomous functionality in existing vehicles.
“We’re not ever building the transportation-as-a-service kind of stuff,” he said. “We are building a [product] where you install a Comma system in your car and watch as it gets more advanced and more sophisticated. The real dream is autocommute — where you press the button and the car pulls up in your driveway and takes you where you need to go.”
Hotz, who previously bet Tesla CEO Elon Musk that a Comma-driven vehicle would be able to semi-autonomously navigate the Golden Gate Bridge better than a Tesla, says Tesla is still the company to beat.
“They’re the leaders in the industry, only because they’re the only ones who have shipped,” he said. “I don’t think their technology is great, but they shipped.”
As for the bet: “I’m not sure Elon will go head-to-head with me,” Hotz said. “I would love to. But realistically, I’ll know we’ve won when we have more self-driving cars on the road than him.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.