Comma AI's Panda is a $88 gateway to hacking your car

Comma AI wants to give drivers a much better understanding of what's going on under the hood of their car, and a new dongle, Panda, is how it plans to unlock it. The $88 gadget is the latest in a series of OBD-II – or On-Board Diagnostics II – adapters which plug into the port most new cars made since 1996 have, and tap into the flow of data the vehicle's own systems are sharing. Where Panda differentiates itself is in just how much access it grants.

Founded by legendary hacker George Hotz, Comma AI originally wanted to build self-driving car hardware. The NHTSA weighed in, though, with safety concerns and the project was shelved – only to be reborn in open-source form for anybody with an interest in autonomous vehicles to try out themselves. Panda, Hotz says, is a neatly packaged version of the hacked-together system he originally used to figure out those self-driving car interfaces.

So, though it's small, it supports not only 3 CAN (Controller Area Network), but 2 LIN (Local Interconnect Network), and 1 GMLAN (General Motor Local Area Network). It has WiFi and a USB port, the latter both charging a phone and connecting to a computer.

Out of the box it'll work with a number of Comma AI's software tools. There's a cloud-recording dashboard camera, for instance, called chffr, which when paired with Panda will annotate footage with metrics from the vehicle like engine speed, braking force, and more. openpilot, the company's open-source autonomous driving software, will be able to use Panda to take control of a compatible vehicle's gas, brakes, and steering.

However, Comma AI is also launching a new tool alongside Panda. Dubbed comma cabana, it's a free alternative to the $10k CANalyzier app that, so far, has been the out-of-reach-to-most CAN reader software option. Hotz and his colleagues are hoping that broader use of Panda and comma cabana will flesh out the app with the necessary codes and such to interface with every car on the market.

The connected car dongle market has been heating up over the past few years, as new and unexpected uses for the OBD-II diagnostics port are discovered. Startups like Automatic and Vinli have attempted to decipher what the car's onboard systems are saying in a consumer-friendly way, while insurance companies have begun crunching the data to track usage for pay-per-mile coverage plans. Meanwhile, its gained the attention of bigger names, too: SiriusXM acquired Automatic back in April.

However there are signs that the automakers themselves are waking up to the idea that they might not want third-party accessories plugged into their dashboards – and that they could be able to better commercialize themselves the data those gadgets are looking for. Ford, for instance, is looking at locking down the OBD-II port so that, rather than the free-for-all of data it currently provides, connected vehicle program chief Don Butler explained to SlashGear, it would only supply the minimum required by the legislation.

If more car companies adopt such a strategy, it could put the brakes on projects like Comma AI's. At its core, the ODB-II standard was created – and the port mandated – to check cars' emissions. Automakers could opt to leave that data available, but block other hardware from reading and interacting with broader information from the vehicle.

Panda is up for preorder now, priced at $88. It'll ship within 4-12 weeks, Comma AI says.