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Uber pulls driverless cars from San Francisco

Score one for the California DMV.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars off San Francisco’s streets Wednesday after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their registrations, effectively ending the company’s controversial pilot program after just one week.

The move marked a dramatic end to Uber’s standoff with state regulators over the San Francisco-based company’s insistence that it did not need a permit to test its self-driving cars, even though the state said it did and other companies testing such cars have complied. It’s not clear when or under what conditions self-driving Ubers might return to California’s roads.
“We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, “but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The DMV’s crackdown was a setback for Uber in what many viewed as the ride-hailing giant’s attempt to re-write California’s autonomous vehicle rules. The $68 billion company caught state officials by surprise when it launched its fleet of self-driving vehicles on San Francisco roads last week. After being forced to bow to state regulators, Uber said Wednesday that it has no plans to apply for a permit, but is “open to having the conversation.”

By revoking the registrations for all 16 of Uber’s self-driving cars in California, the DMV made good on a previous threat to shut down the company’s unauthorized pilot program. The company has been running a similar pilot program in Pittsburgh since fall without major incident.

“Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else, through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted,” a DMV spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto also sent a letter to Uber, promising that the department fully supports the autonomous technologies.

“We are committed to assisting Uber in their efforts to innovate and advance this ground-breaking technology,” the director wrote. Though the state’s letter indicated that Uber had expressed interest in applying for a permit, the company was non-committal late Wednesday.

[…]

Uber’s decision to take its cars off the streets came as growing numbers of people expressed concerns over the vehicles’ safety.

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he saw self-driving Ubers make multiple illegal and unsafe “right-hook” turns across bicycle lanes during a test ride before the program’s launch last week.

“Those vehicles are not yet ready for our streets,” Wiedenmeir wrote in a post on the coalition’s website.

See here for the background. The Guardian goes into more detail about the safety concerns.

Concerns are mounting about how the cars behave in dense urban environments, particularly in San Francisco, where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day across more than 200 miles of cycling lanes.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has released a warning about Uber’s carsbased on staff members’ first-hand experiences in the vehicles. When the car was in “self-driving” mode, the coalition’s executive director, who tested the car two days before the launch, observed it twice making an “unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane”.

That means the car crossed the bike path at the last minute in a manner that posed a direct threat to cyclists. The maneuver also appears to violate state law, which mandates that a right-turning car merge into the bike lane before making the turn to avoid a crash with a cyclist who is continuing forward.

“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” said coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy, noting that the group warned Uber of the problem. Company officials told the coalition that Uber was working on the issue but failed to mention that the self-driving program would begin two days later without permits, he said.

“The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch,” he said, “shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”

Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler told the Guardian in an email that “engineers are continuing to work on the problem”, and said that the company has instructed drivers to take control when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane. She did not respond to questions about how the cars, Volvo XC90s, detect cyclists and what kind of training and testing the firm conducted before implementation.

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has raised formal objections to partially automated vehicles, said research raises serious alarms about the ability of drivers to properly intervene in semi-autonomous cars.

“It’s very clear that people are not good at paying attention,” she said, adding, “We’re waiting for enough people to die for something to happen. It’s not a great way to make policy.”

Local advocates noted that the Uber cars have been caught doing four out of the top five causes of collisions or injuries in the city – running red lights, going through stop signs, unsafe turns and failing to yield to pedestrians.

“These behaviors we’re seeing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, “are some of the most dangerous behaviors in San Francisco that lead to traffic deaths and severe injuries.”

The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Relying on human backup for these self-driving vehicles is a bad idea that won’t work outside of a controlled environment because people in a driverless car aren’t going to be paying attention to the operation of that car, just like passengers in regular cars today don’t. On top of that, Uber did its usual disregard the rules and barrel ahead on their own thing, and this time the government agency they attempted to bypass stood firm. I have no doubt that this technology is coming – the Pittsburgh experiment is still going on, with no major incidents – but that doesn’t mean it will or should happen on Uber’s schedule. The fact that regulators need to catch up is a feature here, not a bug. Wired and the NYT have more.

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