A few days before Thanksgiving, George Hotz, a 26-year-old hacker, invites me to his house in San Francisco to check out a project he’s been working on. He says it’s a self-driving car that he had built in about a month. The claim seems absurd. But when I turn up that morning, in his garage there’s a white 2016 Acura ILX outfitted with a laser-based radar (lidar) system on the roof and a camera mounted near the rearview mirror. A tangle of electronics is attached to a wooden board where the glove compartment used to be, a joystick protrudes where you’d usually find a gearshift, and a 21.5-inch screen is attached to the center of the dash. “Tesla only has a 17-inch screen,” Hotz says.
He’s been keeping the project to himself and is dying to show it off. We pace around the car going over the technology. Hotz fires up the vehicle’s computer, which runs a version of the Linux operating system, and strings of numbers fill the screen. When he turns the wheel or puts the blinker on, a few numbers change, demonstrating that he’s tapped into the Acura’s internal controls.
After about 20 minutes of this, and sensing my skepticism, Hotz decides there’s really only one way to show what his creation can do. “Screw it,” he says, turning on the engine. “Let’s go.”
As a scrawny 17-year-old known online as “geohot,” Hotz was the first person to hack Apple’s iPhone, allowing anyone—well, anyone with a soldering iron and some software smarts—to use the phone on networks other than AT&T’s. He later became the first person to run through a gantlet of hard-core defense systems in the Sony PlayStation 3 and crack that open, too. Over the past couple years, Hotz had been on a walkabout, trying to decide what he wanted to do next, before hitting on the self-driving car idea as perhaps his most audacious hack yet.
“It’s really a one-person sort of vehicle,” says Lowell Wood, right after he offers me a lift back to my hotel. His brown 1996 Toyota 4Runner, parked outside his office building in Bellevue, Washington, has 300,000-plus miles on the odometer and looks it. Garbage bags full of Lord-knows-what take up most of the back. He squeezes his paunchy, 6-foot-2-inch frame behind the wheel and, using his cane, whacks away papers, more bags, and an ’80s-vintage car phone to clear some room on the passenger side. The interior smells like pet kibble. Wood puts the keys in the ignition and then spends half a minute jiggling them vigorously until the truck finally starts. As we pull away, I wonder aloud if all the detritus crammed in his SUV could be from a hobby. “No, I don’t have time for any of that,” Wood says. He adds that he’s not terribly good with the ordinary aspects of life—paying bills, say, or car washing. He’s too consumed with inventing solutions to the world’s problems. Ideas—really big ideas—keep bombarding his mind. “It’s like the rain forest,” he says. “Every afternoon, the rains come.”
From most people, a comment like that would be preposterously self-important, if not delusional. But Wood is just telling the truth. At 74, he’s been an inventor-in-residence at Intellectual Ventures, a technology research and patent firm, for about a decade. He’s paid to think and orchestrate international teams to develop products such as anticoncussion helmets, drug-delivery systems, superefficient nuclear reactors—anything, really, that might address some pressing need. In the 1980s he led the development of the space lasers that were meant to shield the U.S. from Soviet missiles as part of the “Star Wars” program. He’s an astrophysicist, a self-trained paleontologist and computer scientist, and, as of a few months ago, the most prolific inventor in U.S. history.