Startups benefit from both gamification and mystery. Keep people intrigued, the thinking goes, and you’ll have a customer base when you make it to market. George Hotz, the engineer behind the driverless car company Comma.ai, is doubling down on this strategy by offering a pseudo-currency to test subjects and refusing to explain what the hell it means. (Comma.ai did not respond to Inverse’s inquiry for this article.)
Unlike Elon Musk, who built an electric car company from the ground up then threw autopilot software into the mix, Hotz wants nothing to do with car manufacturing. His plan is to sell a $1,000 kit on Amazon Prime capable of turning any car into an autonomous vehicle. It’s a bold vision and so there’s a catch — at least from an engineering standpoint. Hotz needs data to help train his system’s A.I. He’s gotten some of that through Chffr, a mobile app that records users’ views as they drive. App users are rewarded with “comma points,” which are also available to anyone who visits Comm.ai’s “adult coloring book” (no, not that one), which asks users to color in pictures taken from car dashboards. Different brushes correspond to different parts of each scene: There’s red for road markings, green for cars and people, blue for signs and traffic lights, and so forth. By having humans identify these constituents, the A.I. can itself learn how to better identify these constituents.
In exchange, humans get points.
And that’s pretty much what we know.
Here’s what we don’t know: What the points are. Hotz has been largely mum on the issue, saying only that they’re “absolutely incredible” and issuing a public correction clarifying the words “comma points” should always be rendered in Goldenrod. (Sorry, George.) This is a bit cryptic, a bit playful, and a bit trolly.
And that’s all very much the point. Because being inscrutable inspired public speculation and public speculation is good for commerce (see: the grotesque lengths Disney will go to in order to prevent the public from learning about the next Star Wars plot).
The best speculation to date is also just about the only logical explanation. Hotz wants to get his self-driving systems out to people before 2016 ends. Given the Tesla Model 3 hype and ensuing reservation frenzy, Hotz can make a reasonable guess that there will be a similar rush to order his product. Those with comma points are those who have already demonstrated a strong interest in the technology, so it would make sense to privilege them in some way. Giving them access to the first products would be very reasonable.
The point system is a marketing move and should be viewed strictly as such, but the fact that it seems to be working on some level is indicative of just how much buzz exists around driverless car companies. There is a sense that anything can happen. Hotz is playing off that while presumably queueing up potential customers and investors alike. And, don’t forget, he gets the data. People are likely paying with data for the opportunity to pay with money. That’s a pretty good indication of the size of Hotz’s potential market and the enthusiasm of his consumers.