Why Comma.ai, Maker of Self-Driving Tech, is Moving to San Diego

Tech salaries may not be as high outside of Silicon Valley, but neither is the cost of operating a business—or the cost of living.

San Diego’s startup community has rejoiced in recent months as massive companies that employ thousands of engineers—including Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), and the tech arm of Walmart (NYSE: WMT)—have announced expansions in the region.

Local entrepreneurs hope that investment will make other tech businesses, including early-stage companies, more comfortable settling in the region, where concerns about talent recruitment are long-standing. One Palo Alto-based startup has already made the move, announcing last week it will be relocating from the Bay Area to San Diego’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Comma.ai makes a system that outfits a number of cars produced by a range of automakers—among them, cars made by Chevy, Honda, and Toyota—with self-driving software and hardware. Comma has open sourced the software, which it intends to be used with hardware that it sells.

Whether Comma would be able to bring on top talent in San Diego as the company continues to grow was a consideration in the decision to move, said Comma’s CEO Riccardo Biasini, but the news of big companies that are expanding in the region played a role in ameliorating that worry. Biasini spoke on the phone with Xconomy on Monday from San Diego International Airport, as he waited to board a Bay Area-bound flight after a weekend with other Comma employees checking out their new office and scouting for housing.

Comma was founded in 2015 by George Hotz, who is perhaps best known for being, at age 17, the first person to “jailbreak” the iPhone, hacking it so it could used outside of the network of AT&T (NYSE: T), with which Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) had partnered exclusively on the device’s release. Hotz now leads Comma’s research team. Last year he abdicated the top role at Comma to Biasini, its then-vice president of quality, who had previously joined the company after five years with Tesla.

Unlike some young companies, Comma has a product. It also has customers. About 1,500 people use its $499 Eon Dashcam DevKit, hardware that drivers can use for “passive” assistance, or notifications of potential hazards, Biasini says. But it’s really meant for use with Openpilot, the self-driving software Comma has developed for “active” assistance, such as keeping a car within lane lines. Comma once intended to the sell the software, but decided to open source it and sell only the hardware after a warning from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it would block sales without proof of its safety, according to news reports at the time.

Biasini says Comma is looking to partner with automakers and providers of driver assistance systems to expand its reach. (It’s on the radar of at least one carmaker: Tesla took issue with a Bloomberg profile of Hotz and Comma written in 2015 by Ashlee Vance, who took a ride with Hotz in an Acura he had outfitted with a self-driving system. That year Vance published a best-selling biography of Elon Musk, the first with which the mercurial serial entrepreneur cooperated.)

While Tesla and others talk of self-driving cars, the Comma team sees a major opportunity to make driving safer today by getting some autonomous features to human drivers in the years before, perhaps, all vehicles gain autonomous navigation abilities. Comma obtains data from its users (if they give the OK), which uses it to improve the software, Biasini said. So far it has data from more than 8 million miles of driving.

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Sarah de Crescenzo is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can reach her at sdecrescenzo@xconomy.com. Follow @sarahdc

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