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Uber drivers sue over employment status

This will be worth watching.

Lawyers for 19 Texas drivers for Uber on Friday filed a federal class-action lawsuit in Houston, claiming the ride-hailing app company’s oversight and control of supposedly independent drivers is so pervasive, they should be considered employees.

If successful, the lawsuit could mean the thousands of local drivers for the company suddenly would be Uber workers instead of independent contractors, upending what some have considered an innovative business model and others have called modern-day servitude.

“The primary issue is, are these guys employees or independent contractors,” Houston lawyer Kevin Michaels said. “Uber tracks every move that a driver makes… As long as they are on the app, they are under Uber’s control.”

Uber officials Friday afternoon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Lawyers said in the filing to the U.S. District Court for the Southern Division of Texas, the drivers made less than minimum wage when their time awaiting fares is calculated, despite the company’s claims in promotional materials that drivers could earn $100,000 a year.

“Given the current fare structures, an individual would have to drive an exorbitant number of hours on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to even approach gross fares totaling this amount, much less earn this amount,” the lawyers wrote. “Uber knew such statements were fraudulent and misleading and also knew that individuals would rely on such misrepresentations when deciding to become Uber drivers.”

[…]

The lawsuit filed Friday makes claims similar to those in various courts across the nation. A number of cases in California, Illinois, Massachusetts and other states already have drawn wide attention that could put the question on a path to the U.S. Supreme Court, should various circuit courts rule in different ways.

“It is definitely going to be years,” said Wilma B. Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board.

It is the second lawsuit filed on behalf of drivers by Michaels. The first, filed by three drivers, prompted Friday’s filing, which adds claims that drivers should be considered employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

As noted, there are several of these lawsuits around the country. I think the California one is the oldest, but none have had any decisions rendered as yet. I can’t say I actually believe the drivers will win, but who knows what could happen. The DMN has more.

RideAustin tries to hang on

I wish them luck.

The return of Uber and Lyft to Austin has put the city’s only ride-hailing nonprofit in a fight for survival.

RideAustin, one of several small companies that started operations in Austin after the ride-hailing giants left the city in May 2016, is now seeing its ridership cut in half since the two returned to town. The company is slashing expenses and cutting staff, said CEO Andy Tryba.

“We always knew that at some point Uber and Lyft were going to come back. So we’ve always prepared for it,” Tryba said in an interview with The Texas Tribune, adding that RideAustin expected a big drop in rides — but didn’t think it would happen so fast.

[…]

RideAustin, which began operating in June 2016, was notable as the first ride-hailing company to run on a nonprofit model that promised better pay for drivers and allowed riders to donate to local charities through the app. It’s seen ridership steadily increase over the past year — which spiked to more than 110,000 weekly rides during the South by Southwest festival.

But RideAustin’s fortunes turned during the Legislature’s 85th regular session this year, when lawmakers passed a statewide regulatory framework for ride-hailing companies that supersedes local ordinances — including Austin’s. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law on May 29, and Uber and Lyft returned to Austin the same day.

The drop in ridership for RideAustin was swift and dramatic: last week, the company provided 22,000 rides — less than half of the 59,000 rides it operated in the week before Uber and Lyft returned. Tryba attributed part of the loss to UT-Austin students leaving town for the summer, but he also acknowledged that a large share of rides was recaptured by Uber and Lyft.

[…]

RideAustin is working to avoid the same fate as Fare, a Phoenix-based ride-hailing company that shut down operations in Austin just a week after Uber and Lyft’s return. In an email to customers, the company said it couldn’t “endure the recent loss of business.” Other ride-hailing services that had started operating in the initial vacuum have also gone out of business over the past year.

The city’s ride-hailing market changed significantly after Uber and Lyft left. Researchers from the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and other universities conducted a study about how Uber and Lyft’s departure changed riders’ behavior in Austin. They found that only 40 percent of respondents transitioned from Uber or Lyft to other ride-hailing companies, while 60 percent started making similar trips using other transportation, like biking, walking or driving a personal vehicle.

Chris Simek, a researcher at the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute that authored the study, said that among those who chose another service, “about half reported using RideAustin most often to make that type of trip. About a third reported using Fasten most often, and about one in 10 reported using Fare most often.”

Simek said the research team plans to do a follow-up study to analyze the market now that Uber and Lyft are back.

See here and here for some background. I had hope that the Uber-less Austin model of multiple firms actually competing to be better or at least different than each other would successfully fill the void, but either there wasn’t enough time for people to adjust or they just liked Uber and Lyft too much. That survey suggests there was something to the latter point. Be that as it may, I hope RideAustin can hold on and develop into something that could be replicated elsewhere. Anything that provides a better way for the drivers to earn a living is worth having.

Help Metro figure out its Regional Transit Plan

Here’s your chance to get involved and shape the direction of transit in the greater Houston area going forward.

What is your vision for transit service in the Greater Houston region?

METRO needs your help in creating a bold vision for the region’s transit network. METRO’s Board of Directors, led by Chair Carrin Patman, is developing a new plan for transit services in the Houston region. We intend to focus on providing more transportation choices to more people, and it is critical that we get your input.

The Regional Transit Plan will build on the foundation laid by METRO Solutions, the long-range transit plan approved by voters in 2003. METRO Solutions laid out a vision for the future transit system that included light rail, an expanded local bus system, new commuter bus facilities and much more. Since that time, METRO has been working to deliver that plan.

Our transit system must help people get to where they need to go today, as well as in the future. Through this process, we will look for ways to better serve the needs of our current customers, as well as develop strategies to attract new customers to the transit system. The regional transit plan will be designed to serve area residents through 2040.

The METRO Board of Directors established the following goals and guiding principles in developing the Regional Transit Plan.

Goals

  • Improve Mobility
  • Enhance Connectivity
  • Support Vibrant Communities
  • Ensure a Return on Investment

Guiding Principles

  • Safety
  • Stewardship
  • Accessibility
  • Equity

With these thoughts in mind, we invite you to join us in developing a plan for a transit system that best serves our area’s residents, businesses and visitors.

We’re Listening

  • What kind of transit system would best serve your needs?
  • How do feel about the goals of the 2040 Regional Transit Plan?
  • If you do not use transit today, what would entice you to use it tomorrow?
  • What are three important things METRO should keep in mind as it develops the Plan?

See here, here, and here for the background, and click the link at the top for the Regional Transit Plan presentation and the link to give your feedback. Metro will be holding a series of community meetings through July and August, beginning on June 27, to solicit feedback. I and several other bloggers had the opportunity to get a preview of this earlier in the week – see Glissette Santana’s writeup in the Urban Edge blog for some of the details – and I can tell you that Metro has been thinking about and planning for a lot of possibilities. The starting point is the 2003 referendum and the unfinished business it leaves behind, and it includes rail, BRT, bus system improvements, coordination with other regional transit agencies, partnerships with rideshare services, pilot programs for automated vehicles, and more. Community input is needed both to highlight underserved areas of need and to build the political capital that will enable passage of the next referendum in 2018. Check it out, attend some meetings, and let Metro know what is important to you and for them.

Uber and Lyft come rolling back

To Austin:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday signed into law a measure creating a statewide regulatory framework for ride-hailing companies, overriding local measures that prompted businesses such as Uber and Lyft to leave Austin and other cities.

Uber and Lyft said they resumed operations in Austin on Monday. Lyft also said it would relaunch in Houston on Wednesday (Uber is already operating in Houston.)

“What today really is is a celebration of freedom and free enterprise,” Abbott said during a signing ceremony. “This is freedom for every Texan — especially those who live in the Austin area — to be able to choose the provider of their choice as it concerns transportation.”

House Bill 100 undoes local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models. It requires ride-hailing companies to have a permit from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and pay an annual fee of $5,000 to operate throughout the state. It also calls for companies to perform local, state and national criminal background checks on drivers annually — but doesn’t require drivers to be fingerprinted.

“Today’s bill signing creates a ridesharing network in Texas that benefits consumers, expands transportation options, maximizes access to safe, affordable rides and creates expanded earning opportunities for Texans,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison said. “Riders and drivers are the real winners today.”

And (for Lyft) to Houston:

Ride-hailing company Lyft will officially return to the Houston market.

San Francsico-based Lyft will return to Houston on May 31 at 2 p.m., according to Chelsea Harrison, Lyft’s senior policy communications manager. The move comes shortly after Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 100, a statewide comprehensive transportation bill, on May 29. Lyft has been ramping up its local marketing, recruiting drivers and offering discount codes to riders since the bill went to the governor’s desk for signing.

“Today’s bill signing creates a ridesharing network in Texas that benefits consumers, expands transportation options, maximizes access to safe, affordable rides and creates expanded earning opportunities for Texans. Riders and drivers are the real winners today,” Harrison said in an email.

[…]

HB 100’s rules are expected to go into effect in September.

Actually, that law went into effect immediately after Abbott’s signature, as it was passed with a two thirds majority in both chambers. The normal rule is that bills go into effect after 90 days, but with a supermajority they go into effect immediately.

You know how I feel about this. I think it was reasonable for the Lege to clear the way for TMCs to operate outside of cities, and I can see some value in a uniform approach to regulating them. I don’t care for the ongoing contempt for local control, and the gratuitous “definition of gender” amendment really sticks in my craw. In the end, I largely agree with this:

Following the passage of the bill in both chambers, however, Austin Mayor Steve Adler issued a statement saying he was “disappointed” the Legislature voted to nullify regulations the city had implemented.

“Our city should be proud of how we filled the gap created when Uber and Lyft left, and we now must hope that they return ready to compete in a way that reflects Austin’s values,” Adler wrote.”

There’s clearly a demand for what Uber and Lyft sell, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that HB100 has just ushered in some free-market nirvana for ride-seekers. I mean, surely at some point in the future Uber will succeed in buying up Lyft, thus making it a functional monopoly in that market. How exciting will it be then to have the equivalent of a cable company for ridesharing? The brief period in Austin where a bunch of companies actually competed for drivers and riders is what a free market looks like. Too bad none of the rest of us will get to experience that.

Senate passes statewide rideshare bill

It’s a done deal.

After a debate among lawmakers over the best way to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, the Texas Senate on Wednesday backed a proposal that would override local regulations concerning ride-hailing companies.

House Bill 100 would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

“Regulating them at the city level will always be challenging,” the bill’s Senate author, state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, said. “Transportation, by nature, is a regional concern.”

His bill passed in the upper chamber in a 20-10 vote on its third and final reading. The measure now heads to the governor’s desk.

Though the vote on the bill was originally announced as 20-10, senate records later showed it actually passed 21-9, meaning more than two-thirds of the Senate supported the measure. That distinction matters because of a provision in the bill that allows it to go into effect immediately after the governor signs it instead of on Sept. 1 if it receives support of two-thirds of the members in both chambers. As the measure passed the House in a 100-35 vote, it means ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft could potentially return to cities like Austin as early as this summer.

You know the story on this one. The offensive “definition of sex” amendment is still in there, which I have to hope winds up not meaning much in the grand scheme of things. And I agree with mayor Turner that this is “another example of the legislature circumventing local control”, but all things considered it’s less of that than it could have been. I know I’m rationalizing, but such is how it is these days. Expect to see the pink Lyft mustache in town again, as they have been recruiting drivers in anticipation of this. Maybe some other services will come to town as well. Whatever you think of this soon-to-be-law, there will be one fewer obstacle to entry.

Rideshare bill advances in Senate

It was almost different and then it wasn’t, but it still could be.

Rep. Chris Paddie

Paid ride companies such as Uber and Lyft are one step closer to the statewide oversight they crave, after a state Senate committee approved a revised plan to regulate them, as opposed to cities.

Members of the Senate State Affairs committee approved the bill, unchanged from what was sent by House lawmakers in HB 100, sponsored by State Rep, Chris Paddie, R-Marshall. The bill establishes statewide rules for paid ride companies that connect willing drivers and interested riders by smartphone. State rules would eliminate any city regulations, while still giving cities control to regulate taxi and limousine drivers and companies.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, at first proffered a substituted version of the bill, then rescinded the substitute without discussion so the committee could approve the original version.

“Several senators expressed a desire to offer additional changes to HB 100,” said Thomas Halloway, chief of staff for Schwertner, in an email. “In the interest of moving the legislation forward, we agreed the most appropriate action was to move the original bill to the floor so all senators have the opportunity to offer their own thoughts.”

As a result, the bill the senate will consider retains a clause added by House lawmakers that defines sex as “the physical condition of being male or female.”

See here and here for some background. Sen. Schwertner had originally stripped that bad amendment out of the bill, so I am hopeful that it will get amended out on the floor of the Senate. We’ll see.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a flying car!

Seriously.

Uber is looking to North Texas as a testing ground for its initiative to make intra-urban flying vehicle rides a reality. The company announced Tuesday that Dallas and Fort Worth are its first U.S. partner cities for what its dubbing the “Uber Elevate Network.”

The company hopes to have the first demonstration of how such a network of flying, hailed vehicles would work in three years.

Uber is also working with Dallas’ Hillwood Properties to plan vertiports, sites where the aircraft would pick up and drop off passengers. Fort Worth’s Bell Helicopter is among companies partnering with Uber to help develop the actual vehicles, called VTOLs because they would vertically take off and land.

The announcement was made at a three-day Uber Elevate Summit being held in Dallas.

“This is an opportunity for our city to show leaders from around the world and across industries why Dallas should be a part of building a better future for urban mobility,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a prepared statement.

[…]

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Bell is developing propulsion technology to build electric airborne vehicles “that are quieter than the usual helicopter.”

“It’s not going to happen right away, tomorrow, but the technology is definitely there,” Bell chief executive Mitch Snyder told the newspaper. “We definitely believe the hybrid electric is something we could go make and fly right now. But I think full electric, to give it the range and everything you want out of it, is not quite there.”

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a prepared statement that she is “thrilled” her city is part of the Elevate initiative.

“Being in the North Texas region, which encourages innovation and responsible businesses to thrive, we trust that this will be a beneficial choice for the development of the Elevate project,” she said.

Fast Company reported that Uber is portraying Elevate as “a cheap alternative to building new roads and expanding public transit” but noted that Rawlings maintains Dallas has to provide as many transportation options as possible.

“Anytime there’s innovation in the marketplace, I don’t think anybody truly knows the results of these things, or the costs,” Rawlings told Fast Company. “We’ve got to be multimodal — there’s no question — in this city.”

Well, that’s one way to avoid traffic, I suppose. Someone should call up Avery Brooks and tell him his question may soon be getting an answer. Uber has a former NASA engineer working on this idea, for which they released a white paper last October, and they say they hope to have it off the ground (as it were) by 2020. How likely is that? Wired asked the same question.

If that sounds ambitious, you possess a basic understanding of the challenges involved here. The kind of aircraft Uber envisions shuttling customers through the air—electric, with vertical takeoff and landing capability, and capable of flying 100 miles in just 40 minutes—don’t exist yet. Nor does the infrastructure to support them. The FAA, an agency not known for speed, must ensure these aircraft meet all federal safety regulations and figure out where and how they fit into a complex air traffic control system.

Instead of cracking those problems on its own, Uber plans to punt. It hopes to play the role of a catalyst, spurring manufacturers to build the aircraft, the FAA to figure out the regulations, and cities to wave them in. Company CEO Travis Kalanick apparently wants to play the role of Elon Musk, who came up with the idea for hyperloop and is letting everyone else figure out how to make it work. The reward for playing Kalanick’s game? Accessing Uber’s 55 million monthly active riders in nearly 600 cities worldwide.

And here’s the crazy part: Uber could make it happen. “I think 2020 is realistic for a vehicle that is not replacing an airplane but replacing a car,” says Richard Pat Anderson, director of the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A purely electric aircraft might remain elusive, but a serial hybrid setup—where the aircraft carries a fuel-burning turbine to keep the juice flowing, much like the Chevrolet Volt—could work.

Which is not to say there aren’t other obstacles.

“If there are flying cars, then well obviously you have added this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather,” [Tesla CEO] Musk said. “And of course you’d have to have a flying car [that operates by] autopilot because otherwise, forget it.”

Think weaving through traffic on a busy day is frustrating? Try adding an entirely new dimension to the mix. “Essentially with a flying car you’re talking about going 3-D,” Musk says. “There’s a fundamental flaw with cities where you’ve got dense office buildings and apartment buildings and duplexes, and they’re operating on three dimensions, but then you go to the street, and suddenly they’re two-dimensional.”

Getting your 3-D driving license from the DMV isn’t the only challenge a future of flying cars would have to overcome, Musk added. While Tesla has announced an update that promises to ease drivers’ “range anxiety,” seeing a flashing empty light while your car is in midair might cause more of a range heart attack. And just imagine being one of the poor street-bound souls if two-ton automobiles start falling out of the sky.

“Even in autopilot, and even if you’ve got redundant motors and blades, you’ve still gone from near-zero chance of something falling on your head to something greater than that,” Musk said.

So good luck with that, Dallas. I guess we may soon find out what a few billion dollars in venture capital and an utter disregard for the rule of law or the norms of society can do. The Verge and the Dallas Observer have more.

Uber and Lyft speak on the “biological sex” amendment in statewide rideshare bill

It’s a start.

Five days after a controversial amendment defining “sex” as “male or female” was added to a statewide ride-hailing bill, representatives from Uber and Lyft called the addition disappointing and unnecessary — though both companies stopped short of saying they’d withdraw their support.

“We are disappointed that this unnecessary amendment was added to legislation that should be focused on adopting a consistent statewide framework for ride sharing,” Uber spokesman Travis Considine said. “Uber’s comprehensive national nondiscrimination policy will not change.”

“The adopted amendment is unnecessary, as Lyft’s strong nondiscrimination policy remains in effect no matter what local or state statutes exist,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Harrison said.

Neither Considine nor Harrison said their respective companies would pull back support of the bill over the amendment, which would define “sex” as the “physical condition of being male or female.” Considine said Uber’s existing nondiscrimination policy won’t change — it prohibits “discrimination against riders or drivers based on race, religion, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, sex, marital status, gender identity and age, among other things.”

See here for the background. It would have been nice if they would have spoken up sooner, but at least they have now done so. I’m glad they have reiterated their nondiscrimination policies, which I suppose makes that Tinderholt amendment moot for them, but the door is open for a company that would discriminate on the basis of gender presentation or identity if this bill gets passed in the Senate as is. The goal here is to take that out of the final version. The statements from Uber and Lyft help, but it’s going to take more than that.

The post-Uber Austin rideshare experience

Texas Monthly notes the issues that some people faced during SxSW hailing a ride, and considers the rideshare landscape in Austin post-Uber and Lyft.

But the thesis that Austin is experiencing a crisis around ride-hailing apps is an old one, and it’s incomplete. RideAustin, which as a non-profit makes all of its numbers public, gave its millionth ride in February. Drivers are happy with the rates they make on RideAustin (which gives them the full amount of the ride) and Fasten (which takes a flat fee out of each ride, rather than a percentage like Lyft does). Most of the year, the companies’ servers can handle the load, and it’s likely that they’ll each be improving their servers based on what happened at SXSW.

Still, despite the fact that the city seems much happier with the current state of its ride app regulations than the tech fellas who come in for SXSW, things might end up getting a lot friendlier for Lyft and Uber anyway. That’s because the disruptive innovators in the tech world have an ally in the Texas Legislature, which seems increasingly likely to pass statewide regulations that would prevent cities like Austin (and Houston, which has a similar ordinance—and which keeps Lyft, but not Uber, from choosing to operate in the city) from determining what the rules that drivers and the companies through which they find passengers will have to follow will be in each city.

There are three different bills in the Lege, all of which would create a statewide rule that would supersede local regulations, and the Senate began debating them last month. (Similar legislation was proposed in 2015, though it ended up dying without a vote.) This time, though, momentum is on the side of the companies that hope to see the legislation passed—the Texas Tribune reports that “at least one of the bills is widely expected to eventually move on to the full Senate for a vote,” which, in an environment that’s increasingly hostile to the idea of local control, has a strong chance of passing.

All of which is to say that the question of whether or not Austin’s leadership “ruined” ridesharing is ultimately the wrong thing to focus on. It’s true both that Austin tends to get around pretty well without Uber and Lyft, and that the two companies are pushing hard for legislation that would change the dynamic there dramatically. Perhaps the real question, then, is what happens to Fasten, RideAustin, and the rest if Uber and Lyft come back?

That’s a tougher question to answer, but it’s the one on which the future of ride-hailing in Austin hinges. For now, RideAustin and Fasten are doing a job that satisfies customers and drivers. But if Uber and Lyft decide to cut costs to consumers for six months, eating the expense of the service, they could easily make RideAustin and Fasten seem like overpriced relics of a bizarre moment in the city’s history. It may not prove sustainable (currently, Uber’s passengers pay for only 41 percent of each ride, and the company was projected to lose $3 billion in 2016), but it doesn’t have to be sustainable: it only has to chase away the competition.

I have mostly resigned myself to the fact that the Lege is going to pass a statewide rideshare law that will forcibly overrule the ordinances passed in cities like Austin and Houston regarding these services. The bills that are being considered have some good points to them, and there is certainly an argument to be made that a uniform statewide approach makes more sense and will serve customers better. But I think that latter part will only be true if there is robust competition among multiple rideshare companies, ant not just an Uber/Lyft duopoly with a legacy cab service for a declining share of riders. As such, I have two hopes for what happens after Uber and Lyft make their mandated returns to Austin. One is that they will find a market that isn’t as into them as before thanks to the presence of many other viable services, which forces them to innovate and compete not just for riders but also for drivers. And two, if Uber and Lyft take the approach of trying to kill off their competition instead by leveraging their billions in market capitalization to subsidize their service until they’re the only players left standing, that the Legislature recognizes this anti-free market in a way that some people say taxi regulations are, and take action to correct it. Let’s just say I have more hope for the former than for the latter.

House passes statewide rideshare bill

Made it farther than it did last session.

Rep. Chris Paddie

After a lengthy debate among lawmakers over the best way to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, the Texas House backed a proposal that would override local regulations concerning ride-hailing companies.

House Bill 100, by state Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, would establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models. Cities enacting such rules say those regulations bring a needed layer of security.

As of mid-morning Wednesday, 79 members in the 150-member House — including Paddie — had signed on to the bill as authors or co-authors.

“HB 100 is not about a particular company or any particular city,” Paddie said Wednesday on the House floor. “Statewide regulations for transportation network companies have become the best practice across the country.”

His bill was tentatively approved by the lower chamber in a 110-37 vote after representatives tacked on several amendments, including one that seeks to define “sex.” The measure needs final approval from the House before it could be considered in the Senate.

At times, the debate over the bill appeared to veer into one of the most contentious topics this session at the Capitol: gender identity. In the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has prioritized a “bathroom bill” that would require transgender people to use the restroom in some places that matches their “biological sex.”

On Wednesday, state Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, successfully amended the ride-hailing bill to define “sex” as the “physical condition of being male or female.” The amendment, which passed 90-52, drew some concern from Democrats, who questioned whether it was a way to exclude a certain group.

“I can assure you that it is not my intent,” Paddie said, adding that he accepted the amendment because he views it as “further defining something that’s already defined.”

HB 100 would require ride-hailing companies to have a permit from the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and pay an annual fee to operate throughout the state. It also calls for companies to perform local, state and national criminal background checks on drivers annually — which would override an Austin ordinance.

See here for the background. Two related Senate bills were heard in committee, with SB361 by Sen. Nichols getting passed out. I don’t know what to make of the “biological sex” amendment beyond the continued obsession of certain zealots. What’s more important is what do Uber and Lyft, who have been pushing hard for a statewide rideshare bill, think of it?


Well, Uber and Lyft? What do you say? Those of you who use Uber and Lyft, what do you want them to say about this? I would recommend you tell them. Maybe this will get stripped out going forward, but that almost certainly won’t happen without some pressure. Now is the time to bring it. And kudos to the members who pulled their support for this bill in response to the needless amendment.

The Chron adds some details.

The bill would give oversight of companies that connect willing drivers and interested riders via smart phone to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. The companies that operate the smart phone app and process payments between the riders and drivers would pay a $5,000 annual licensing fee, and certify that its drivers meet a number of requirements already common among the companies.

Uber and Lyft have aggressively sought state rules in Texas because of their opposition to city requirements, notably Austin and Houston. In Austin, both companies left the city after new rules that included fingerprint background checks went into effect nearly one year ago.

[…]

As with the contentious fights at the local level, discussion also focused on requiring the fingerprinting of drivers. The companies vigorously oppose fingerprint background checks, favoring their background checks based on Social Security numbers.

Numerous attempts to require fingerprint checks or allow cities to require them failed as amendments to Paddie’s bill.

“We should not take chances with any life,” said Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, noting many professions in Texas are subject to the fingerprint background check.

Paddie deflected the requests for fingerprints and efforts to allow cities to require more strenuous permitting, noting fingerprints can’t predict future behavior.

“We have 150 teachers in this state under investigation for improper relationships with students,” Paddie said.

Seems like you could use that reasoning to justify a lot of things, but whatever. I feel like one way or the other, something is going to pass. As I’ve said, I’ve basically resigned myself to that, but I still don’t approve of the assault on local control. I hope this winds up being the outer edge of that assault, but I’m less than optimistic about that. The DMN has more.

Senate committee hears rideshare bills

One of these, in some form, is likely to become law.

Senate Bill 176, by state Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Senate Bill 361 by state Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, received a joint hearing after [Senate Business & Commerce Committee] chairman Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, noted their similarities. Both bills establish a statewide framework to regulate ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft and undo local rules that the two companies have argued are overly burdensome for their business models.

A majority of about 30 witnesses supported the bills at Tuesday’s hearing, including representatives with Uber and Lyft. Austin councilwoman Ellen Troxclair, who opposed the city’s ride-hailing rules last year, testified in favor of a state law that would override them. Troxclair said the departure of both ride-hailing companies hurt Austin businesses and led to a rise of a transportation black market.

“A Facebook group with over 40,000 members offers to connect people, anybody who wants a ride or anybody who’s willing to give one, regardless of an affiliation to a ride-sharing platform or a background check required,” she said.

Critics of the bills included the Texas Municipal League and Austin City Council member Ann Kitchen. Kitchen, the City Council member who introduced the rules establishing the Austin fingerprinting requirements that prompted Lyft and Uber to leave the city, defended the city’s fingerprinting requirement, and said that the city has fingerprinted 8,000 drivers. At the time the city adopted the rules, she said, the city’s police chief, Art Acevedo, told the council that fingerprinting increased security.

“Fingerprinting is the most effective means to make sure the person you are checking is the person who they say they are,” she said.

See here for some background. Both bills were left pending, but as noted I expect one of them to get a floor vote and to pass. There’s a very similar bill to these two in the House, authored by Rep. Chris Paddie. Any of them could wind up crossing the finish line, and I’ll be surprised if that doesn’t happen.

And on a somewhat tangential note:

Uber and Lyft ramped up their Texas lobby expenditures after Austin voters invited the ride-hailing giants to leave their hi-tech city in 2016 if they refused to comply with a local law requiring them to fingerprint their drivers.

With Texas lawmakers [Tuesday] considering several bills to block cities from regulating such ride companies,1 Uber has increased its state lobby spending 23 percent over last year. It now is spending up to $1.6 million on 26 lobbyists. Lyft meanwhile boosted its lobby spending 88 percent, to pay 14 lobbyists up to $760,000. Together, the two San Francisco-based
companies are spending up to $2.3 million to preempt the powers of local Texas governments.

The two ride giants handed out a total of $40,500 in corporate contributions in 2016 to Texas’ two dominant political parties and to several legislative caucuses.

[Tuesday] the Senate Business and Commerce Committee also is hearing proposals to prevent local governments from curtailing the use of plastic grocery bags or to regulate short-term property rentals.

You can think whatever you want about these bills, but you can’t argue that they don’t come cheap. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Once again with driverless car legislation

Third time’s the charm, right?

Rep. Charlie Geren

State Rep. Charlie Geren isn’t about to let Texas get left in the dust when driverless vehicles start easing their way into everyday life. Especially since car manufacturers need somewhere to test them and could one day need someplace to mass produce them.

“I don’t want General Motors, or Ford, or Volkswagen, or Uber or anybody going anywhere else because Texas isn’t quite ready for this yet,” Geren told The Texas Tribune late Thursday.

The Fort Worth Republican this week filed House Bill 3475, which seeks to lay the framework for driving autonomous vehicles on Texas roads. Geren’s under no impression that the technology is well tested — or well trusted — enough that Texans are going to be walking into dealerships and buying driverless cars anytime soon. But he wants to get the ball rolling so car companies can expand testing of the technology in the state.

[…]

Among other things, the current version of Geren’s bill would require the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle obtain a surety bond or insurance worth $10 million. The vehicles would have to be able to operate in compliance with existing traffic laws.

The automobiles would also be equipped with devices that could provide data on the vehicle’s automated driving system, speed, direction and location before at the time it’s involved in an accident.

Geren said his bill could change as those in the vehicle industry weigh in on it.

“I’m trying to get everybody in the business together on one bill,” Geren said.

It was industry opposition that stalled a 2015 bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, authored in hopes of setting some guidelines for autonomous vehicles in Texas. Among other things, it would have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to create minimum safety requirements for driverless cars.

Google opposed that bill two years ago but declined to publicly explain why at the time. Months later, the company began using a Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with self-driving equipment to test driverless cars in Austin. The tech giant’s autonomous vehicle efforts have since spun off into their own company called Waymo, which opposes Geren’s bill.

“Waymo continues to work with legislators who have an interest in the safe development of fully self-driving cars,” a company spokeswoman said late Thursday. “We believe this legislation is unnecessary and may inadvertently delay access to technology that will save lives and make transportation safer and easier.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers also opposed the 2015 legislation out of fear that rules could have unintended consequences that would stymie development of the technology. The group echoed that sentiment on Friday, but did not speak specifically to Geren’s placeholder bill.

“If a state chooses to take legislative or regulatory action with respect to [autonomous vehicles], it is imperative that such action be focused on removing impediments to the safe testing and deployment of this technology,” said Dan Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance.

Some car manufacturers would prefer more guidelines.

“We think the right path is to come up with legislation that deals with where we are today and for the foreseeable future,” said Harry Lightsey, a public policy executive director for General Motors.

He said that autonomous technology has a long way to go before Americans trust it enough to give up control of the wheel but the landscape is changing so fast that some sort of framework would aid testing. That is key to gaining the kind of safety and performance data that would earn the public’s trust in the technology, Lightsey said.

“All of us have a lot to learn about full, self-driving cars and their impact on the urban landscape,” Lightsey said.

See here and here for more on Ellis’ 2015 bill. Believe it or not, there was a driverless car bill filed in 2013 as well. We’ve been talking about this for longer than you might remember. I don’t know that Rep. Geren’s bill will do any better than those two did, but it’s there just in case a consensus can be reached.

Paddie files another rideshare bill

From the inbox:

Rep. Chris Paddie

Texas State Rep. Chris Paddie (R-Marshall) has filed legislation proposing a statewide regulatory framework for transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft. House Bill 100 will help bring economic opportunity and access to safe, reliable transportation to more Texans.

“It is time to end the inconsistencies of regulations across the state that stand in the way of transportation innovation and adopt a uniform, common sense law focused on safety and access to new technology,” said Rep. Paddie, who is also the former Mayor of Marshall. “In order to encourage growth and innovation, businesses need consistency and certainty. Statewide rules are necessary so riders and drivers can travel from places like Center, TX, to Carthage using ridesharing technology without hitting regulatory barriers.”

About H.B. 100:

Regulatory Certainty: There are more than 1,000 cities in our state and TNC drivers cross invisible lines of jurisdiction with riders on a daily basis. With trips occurring all over Texas and between cities, it’s clear statewide rules are necessary. 36 other states have passed statewide bills regulating TNC’s.

Public Safety: Requires TNCs to conduct a local, state and nationwide criminal background check, including checking the national sex offender database. Requires that applicants convicted of certain offenses are prohibited from being TNC drivers. TNCs also play a role in helping to reduce alcohol-impaired driving in communities where they operate.

Economic Opportunity: TNCs contribute significantly to the local economies where they operate and are on the forefront of innovation improving rural & urban mobility. People from all walks of life choose to drive because it provides a flexible opportunity to earn based on their own schedules and priorities.

Rep. Paddie was the author of a rideshare bill that got the most traction in 2015. His bill joins three others in the Senate and would seem to have a decent chance of passing or being very similar to a bill that passes. Along those lines, I emailed Rep. Paddie’s office after receiving this press release to ask if 1) HB100 was basically the same as HB2440, his bill from last session, and 2) how much it was like the three Senate bills. I was told that it was in fact basically the same as HB2440, with the exception of the insurance provisions that did pass last time, and HB100 was most like the Nichols and Schwertner bills in the Senate, though all of the bills have differences. So add this to your list of bills to watch, and we’ll see which ones make it to the finish line.

Three rideshare bills

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute Policy Center looks at the (first) three bills relating to ridesharing that have been filed in the Lege:

Three bills have been filed so far in the 85th Texas Legislature, regular session, addressing transportation network companies, frequently referred to as ride-hailing or (less accurately) as ridesharing. The bills are

  1. SB 113 Relating to the provision of and local regulation of certain for-hire passenger transportation.
  2. SB 176 Relating to the regulation of transportation network companies; requiring an occupational permit; authorizing a fee.
  3. SB 361 Relating to transportation network companies.

SB 113 and SB 176 have been referred to the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. SB 361 is expected to follow when it is referred to committee.

SB 133 prohibits municipalities from regulating any vehicles for hire (including taxis) and imposes minimal state-level regulation in its place. SB 176 and SB 361 also remove municipal authority over TNCs but introduce state level regulation. There are differences between the latter two (permit fees, for example), but the provisions of both bills are similar to those passed in other states. SB 361 further clarifies that TNCs are not motor carriers and, thus, not regulated under the motor carrier statutes.

There’s further analysis there, so go read the rest. SB361 is by Sen. Robert Nichols, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, SB176 is by Sen. Charles Schwertner; it has five co-authors, including Democratic Sen. Juan Hinojosa. SB113 is by Sen. Don Huffines, and it’s basically a part of his plan to turn cities into helpless wards of the state. That’s the order in which I’d rank them from least to most objectionable. I’d be fine if nothing passes, but something likely will, and if that is the case I can live with either of the first two. There’s room to make them less daunting for cities, and I hope that happens. We’ll see how it goes.

Uber moves driverless car pilot to Arizona

This happened right before Christmas, so I’m just catching up to it now.

The day after California regulators shut down Uber’s self-driving car program in San Francisco, Uber on Thursday packed up its autonomous vehicles and hauled them to Arizona, vowing to resume testing there.

The move was a quick rebound by Uber after its pilot program in San Francisco fell apart after just one week. Instead of giving in to California regulators and applying for a $150 permit to test its self-driving cars on public roads, Uber on Thursday once again signaled it doesn’t need to play by its home state’s rules.

“Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement Thursday. “We’ll be expanding our self-driving pilot there in the next few weeks, and we’re excited to have the support of Governor Ducey.”

The company released photos showing its silver Volvo SUVs loaded onto the back of a semi truck owned by Otto — the autonomous trucking startup that Uber acquired in August.

[…]

Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Thursday welcomed the self-driving Ubers to his state, where they will not need a special permit to drive on public roads, and positioned California’s neighbor as a welcoming alternative for Uber and other disruptive innovators.

“While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses,” he wrote in a statement. “California may not want you, but we do.”

Ducey last year signed an executive order supporting the testing and operation of self-driving cars and establishing a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee to advise officials on how to advance the progress of autonomous vehicles.

Self-driving cars are treated the same as any other vehicle in Arizona, Arizona Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait wrote in an emailed statement.

“We hope this cooperation and common-sense approach, combined with this state’s favorable climate, encourage even more companies to test autonomous vehicles in Arizona,” he wrote.

See here for the background. Arizona’s permissive approach is certainly one way to do this, though one wonders what their response will be if Uber decides that even their rules are too restrictive and so it will just ignore them as they had done in California. It should also be noted that there are some twenty (!) other companies testing driverless cars in California now, following the rules Uber refused to comply with. One presumes Uber will eventually want their cars to operate in CA, so either they’ll have to suck it up or get the US Congress to pass a law requiring all states to allow them to operate as they see fit, much like they want the Lege to do to cities in Texas. I wonder if Ken Paxton will file a lawsuit over the egregious federal interference with states’ rights if that happens. The Fiscal Times, Engadget, the Guardian, and the Washington Post have more.

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.

What’s going on with Metro’s ridership numbers?

I have no idea what to make of this.

Houston’s heralded bus system redesign – garnering kudos from local riders and transit supporters around the country – is running into the reality that nothing can boost transit when fewer people are riding to work.

When the Metropolitan Transit Authority revamped its bus system in August 2015, officials said it would boost ridership by 20 percent in two years. However, transit use in Houston has been declining.

In November, fewer people boarded Metro buses, hopped on trains and commuted to work via the park-and-ride system. When all types of transit except service for the elderly and handicapped are considered, Metro handled 13,625 fewer trips daily, a 4.6% decline last month, according to figures released last week. Commuter bus ridership has plunged by more than 10 percent each of the last two months.

Now likely unable to reach their predicted ridership growth, which would have been unprecedented in the history of Houston mass transit, Metro officials concede more refinement is needed to gain riders on buses and trains.

They blame the declining ridership on fewer oil and gas industry jobs in the area and the transition of many jobs away from downtown Houston. Though the job cuts have been evident in the region’s economic outlook for months, the switch to the new bus system last year might have hidden the negative effect of fewer daily commuters.

“What I think we are seeing is the unemployment rate has had a real effect on ridership and it is just now exhibiting in our numbers,” Arthur Smiley, Metro’s chief financial officer, said.

I say I don’t know what to make of this partly because I can’t tell what the numbers actually are. They’re presented in bits and pieces throughout the story, and it’s not always clear to me when the stated declines are in comparison to the previous month, or to last year at the same time. I realize that I’m more number-oriented than most people, but please give me a table or chart with all of the relevant data. Context is everything.

As for the reasons for the decline, the recent slowdown in the local economy, specifically with energy sector jobs, is one possible factor. Others, not mentioned in the story, may include continued low gas prices and possibly a side effect of Uber’s penetration into the market. No one felt confident putting forth a firm idea, and with much of the decline coming on park-and-ride routes and high-volume local routes that didn’t really change in the system redesign, I’d say more study is needed. It was just four months ago that we were celebrating a big increase in the first year of the new local bus system map, so I’d say it’s a little early to panic. Maybe ridership fluctuates for reasons that aren’t always clear. Let’s do some work to figure this out, and then see what if anything we can do about it.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

Council approves Uber deal

I’d forgotten about this.

Uber

Uber will remain operating in Houston at least through the Super Bowl, after City Council approved changes to the city’s paid ride rules ironed out between the popular ride-hailing service and Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Council members, after a sometimes contentious discussion on Wednesday, approved the revised city rules for taxis, so-called transportation network companies like Uber and limo providers. The changes – which keep Houston’s fingerprint check for drivers in place but eliminates other requirements to operate here such as a mandatory drug test and physical – came after Uber indicated it would leave rather than cooperate with many of the rules.

[…]

City officials said the changes do not compromise passenger safety, while giving Uber and taxi companies more latitude to quickly and easily enroll drivers. When Uber and other companies that connect riders and drivers via smartphone app hit the road in Houston in early 2014, city officials opted to keep many of the same requirements in place that had existed for taxi drivers. After more than two years of study, the city thinks it can roll back some of the unnecessary rules, said Tina Paez, director of the city’s regulatory affairs department.

“We are not going to be everyone’s (human resources) department anymore,” Paez said, referring to redundancies in the company’s background check and the city’s requirements.

See here for the background. This will keep Uber in town through February 5, after which they may or may not finally follow through on that threat to take their app and go home. Or they may wait and see if the Lege takes care of their longstanding complaints about Houston’s and other cities’ regulatory structure. Be that as it may, they’re here for now, so ride ’em if you got ’em.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

Uber wants back in Austin

It’s how they get back that’s the question.

Uber

The ride-hailing company Uber may return to the state’s capital despite leaving Austin in May after a bruising fight with the city over regulation of the industry, according to Trevor Theunissen, the company’s public affairs lead.

“We are willing to negotiate, and we are willing to participate [with the city council] in a discussion on how to move forward. We want to come back here,” Theunissen said at an Austin event Thursday night.

[…]

Theunissen said that since leaving, Uber associates have been on “listening tours” throughout the city to address the concerns of the community. However, he said he hopes the company can return to Austin in the near future.

“We want to be back in Austin and I think it’s a city Uber needs to be in,” said Theunissen. “I’m hopeful that there is a path forward, but there’s a lot of work to do. I’m hoping to get back to the city before the [legislative] session or after the session.”

But former Austin City Council member Laura Morrison said Uber needs to use fingerprint background checks in vetting their drivers if they want to operate in Austin. Speaking on behalf of Our City, Our Safety, Our Choice, Morrison also said that the alternate background check methods Uber uses “are prone to critical errors.”

“Certainly, Uber is welcome to re-enter the Austin market if they are willing to operate under these rules, which all our other ride-hailing services abide by,” said Morrison. “It’s the law here, a law that the council enacted and a public safety standard that the people of Austin support. Uber operates in Houston and New York City and both require fingerprint background checks for Uber’s drivers. It’s a fair question to ask: Why does Uber think that Austinites should be subject to a lower public safety standard?”

In a statement sent to The Texas Tribune before the event, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler said both companies would be welcome back to Austin “with open arms.” He added that there’s nothing stopping either company from returning.

“The mayor has always said that there is nothing in the ordinance preventing Uber and Lyft from choosing to return to Austin where they would be welcomed with open arms,” said Jason Stanford, the communications director for Adler’s office. “In the meantime, he’s also always said that he would be happy to sit down with them to work this out but will not comment on whether these conversations exist to create a safe space in which they could occur.”

There are a couple of ways to look at this. It seems likely that a statewide ridesharing bill will be passed, which will undo the requirement for fingerprint checks that Uber found to be line-in-the-sand-worthy in Austin and to an as-yet-unexecuted extent in Houston. Viewed in that light, this may be simply the initial overtures of someone trying to get back into the good graces of an ex after a breakup. But such overtures necessarily come with a helping of regret over past actions, and I think Uber really does regret leaving Austin; I think one reason why it never did follow through on its threat to pull out of Houston was because of that regret. Austin is a perfect market for Uber, but when they do come back, whether via legislative fiat or mutual agreement with Austin’s City Council, they will face a lot more competition than they had before. It may well be that they will sweep in an reclaim a dominant position in the Austin rideshare scene, but for the past six months their customers have learned to live without them, and some of them will carry a grudge over it. One way or the other, however they get back (and they will), it won’t quite be the same.

City reaches deal with Uber

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner today announced a comprehensive strategy to streamline the City’s vehicle-for-hire licensing process to ensure that Uber remains in Houston and that Houstonians and visitors have as many transportation options as possible during the upcoming Super Bowl. As part of the plan, Uber has committed to continuing operations in Houston with the use of fingerprint background checks through the Super Bowl.

“I am thrilled we can finally put this issue to rest and focus on the real task at hand—providing a great Super Bowl experience that shows off our City,” said Mayor Turner. “We’ve crafted a proposal that reduces the length and cost of a driver application but still protects public safety. This is a win for drivers and passengers alike. These changes will help make sure that visitors have a seamless experience during the Super Bowl and Houstonians have diverse transportation options to meet the growing needs of our city.”

As part of the agreement, the City will bring forward process-improvement changes to Chapter 46 of the City Code which regulates vehicles-for-hire such as taxis, limos, and TNCs (transportation network companies such as Uber). The streamlined changes will reduce the costs of licensing from nearly $200 to $70, cut the licensing process in half, and allow drivers to be licensed in under 20 minutes. The City’s policy on background checks will not change. The proposed changes are expected to come before City Council before the New Year.

Mayor Turner also announced the launch of Arro, the City’s official multimodal transportation app, which will help make the City’s fleet of over 9,000 taxi and limo drivers more readily accessible to the general public. Building on Top Taxi, Houston First’s initiative to improve the quality and customer service of Houston’s taxi industry, Arro will help transform the taxi experience in Houston.

“In a city as large and diverse as Houston, taxis and limos will always play a critical role in our transportation strategy,” said Turner. “Arro and Top Taxi will help modernize our taxi industry by making our fleet more efficient and equipping Houstonians with access to multiple forms of transportation at the push of a button.”

While initially offering taxi rides, Arro’s offerings will expand in the coming months to include limos, wheelchair accessible vehicles, and collaborations with other forms of vehicles-for-hire and METRO. Arro is available for download on Google Play and the Apple App Store.

“We are very excited to bring Arro’s consumer and driver friendly app to the people of Houston starting today. Arro’s presence is a significant step toward enhancing robust transportation options throughout Houston,” said Mike Epley, founder of Arro. “Our app has already enjoyed great success in several cities by offering a potential boost to drivers’ incomes and providing faster and easier transportation access for passengers. ”

“Houston First recognizes that reliable and safe transportation is essential to the city’s success as a destination,” says Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corporation. “That’s why we launched the Top Taxi Program in 2015 to coach our taxicab drivers on delivering a better customer service experience. Now, Mayor Turner is taking it a step further with the implementation of Arro, which we believe will revolutionize the user experience with taxis in Houston. We’re excited to partner with the city on the ongoing Top Taxi program and the rollout of Arro.”

See here for the background on Arro. You may recall that Uber had threatened to leave Houston after the Austin rideshare referendum was voted down, but since those initial rumblings there hasn’t been much from either them or the city. While Council members were not lining up to support Uber in this, there was some concern expressed about the availability of vehicle-for-hire services during the Super Bowl; Arro’s development was in part a hedge against that. This agreement means that those worries can be laid to rest.

The larger fight remains unresolved, however.

The fingerprint check – as opposed to the company’s preferred Social Security number-based check – has been the major disagreement since Houston legitimized the ride providing companies in November 2014.

“Our stance hasn’t changed in any way on fingerprinting,” said Trevor Theunissen, public policy manager for Uber in Texas. “This is a compromise to improve the driver licensing process so we can get through the Super Bowl.”

The deal does not, however, slow efforts by Uber and state lawmakers to develop statewide transportation rules during the upcoming legislative session. Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, filed a bill Monday to create statewide transportation rules for companies like Uber, but keeps taxis regulated at the local level.

Here’s Sen. Schwertner’s statement about the city’s deal with Uber. You know, I’m old enough to remember a time when it was considered “conservative” to value local government over state or federal government, on the grounds that local government was closer to the people and thus more responsive to their needs and accountable to their votes. That just sounds so adorable now. I mean, what could we Houstonians know about our wants and needs compared to a Senator from Williamson County? So until the Legislature crushes it underneath their mighty boots, chalk up another accomplishment for Mayor Turner.

UPDATE: The Press has more.

It’s bill-filing season

And they’re off.

Today is the first day of early filing in the Texas Legislature. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate may begin filing the bills that will be discussed when the legislature convenes in January 10, 2017. So how does that work and what does it mean?

For the most part bills are numbered in the order they are filed. However House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1 are reserved for the Appropriations Bill (the state’s budget) and the first several bills in each chamber are reserved for the Speaker’s priorities and the Lt. Governor’s priorities, respectively. Last session it was the first 40 bills in the House, so the first bill filed on early filing day was HB 41, and the first 20 bills in the Senate, so the first bill filed was SB 21.

There’s no real particular legislative advantage to filing on the first day. Once the session gets going and bills sent to committees they are typically referred in batches of a couple hundred. The House and Senate will send the few hundred bills filed today to committee in the first couple of days of referral and the dozen or so bills filed tomorrow will follow them the same day or the next. Since the chairs of committees have almost complete discretion about when to schedule bills for hearings, a bill filed today could easily be heard in committee after a bill filed tomorrow or three months from now – or not at all.

So why bother to traipse up to Austin to file a bill the first day?

The bills filed today aren’t an indication of what’s most likely to pass next session, but they are an indication of what will be the major topics of conversation. Today’s bills represent the top priorities for lawmakers – and, since every media outlet that covers the lege will run a “what got filed on the first day of early filing” article they are more so the top priorities of the lawmakers who really know how to capture the media’s attention.

That’s from Daniel Williams’ blog, and he has several other posts devoted to first-day filings. Daniel knows legislative procedures like Scott Hochberg knows school finance, so do yourself a favor and read his blog.

The Trib has a good rundown on what has been filed so far. There are actually a fair number that run the gamut from “not bad” to “really good”, though take heed of Daniel’s advice about how little Day One means. There’s also some demagoguery, and more than a few bills making a repeat attempt at passage, including such things as a statewide ban on texting while driving and a bill to authorize online voter registration. New hot topics include a bill to life the cap on special education enrollment, and a bill to authorize and regulate ride-sharing at the state level. There were more than one of those bills; the one that I’d keep an eye on is SB176 by Sen. Schwertner, who has been talking about this since the Austin rideshare referendum. His press release on the bill, which covers the basics of it, has some bombast over that referendum and a bit of BS about how local regulations of rideshare companies were restricting competition, but the bill itself seems reasonable enough. It’s not too hard to see the writing on the wall for this one, and all things considered this approach seems to be workable. Ask me again after it comes out of committee.

Anyway. There’s plenty more out there, and this is of course just day one. In the end, thousands of bills will be filed, and the vast majority of them will die a quiet death. There will be plenty to keep an eye on between now and sine die. The Chron, the Trib, Trail Blazers, Dallas Transportation, the Current, the Austin Chronicle, the Rivard Report, and Out in SA have more.

Council approves city cab-hailing app development

Here it comes.

Houston residents soon will be able to hail a city cab via smartphone app, after City Council signed off on a plan Wednesday to consolidate dispatching in a single program.

The Arro app, already operating in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, is expected to be fully operational in Houston by the end of the month, combining dispatch for Houston’s 146 taxi companies. The city is requiring all of its roughly 9,000 licensed cab and limo drivers to participate.

“It is innovative. It’s taking advantage of technology that exists to create a centralized dispatch service,” Turner told City Council. “If you go to the airports, you’ve got cabs that are sitting there pretty much six, eight hours a day, waiting on a customer. Under this system, they can be out there servicing Houstonians. They don’t lose their place in line, and when it’s time for them to do something, they get a ping.”

Cab and limo companies had urged the city to develop an alternative to Uber, which dominates Houston’s ride market. Uber and other ride share drivers would not be included in the Arro app.

No taxpayer money will be used to develop or advertise the app, though city staff will coordinate with Arro, and elected officials could devote time to promoting the program.

Riders who use the app would pay $1.50 on top of the cab fare, and drivers would pay 50 cents for each app-generated trip, plus 3 percent of the total fare for a credit processing fee.

See here for the background. I kind of have zero expectations for this, but it does provide a needed service for independent cabbies, it’s being developed on the provider’s dime, and it’s not like it could hurt. I’ll be very curious to see what its download and usage numbers look like in a year.

How’s that Uber driverless car pilot going?

A few bumps in the road, as it were.

Uber

Uber driver Nathan Stachelek was pulled off to the side of the road when he saw the self-driving car turn the wrong way.

It was the night of Sept. 26 and the car he had spotted, one of the autonomous Ford Fusions that Uber is testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was heading through the city’s Oakland neighborhood, just steps from the center of campus for the University of Pittsburgh. Stachelek watched the car turn off Bates Street and onto Atwood, a one-way road, going in the wrong direction. From a distance he couldn’t tell whether the car was driving itself, or its human operator had made a mistake. Stachelek took out his phone in time to shoot a brief video of Uber’s vehicle backing up and driving away, then uploaded it to Facebook.

“Driverless car went down a one way the wrong way,” he wrote. “Driver had to turn car around.”

[…]

Stachelek isn’t the only Pittsburgher to spy one of Uber’s self-driving cars in an awkward spot. Late on the night of Sept. 24, another Uber driver and his two passengers encountered a self-driving Uber and a second car pulled over at the intersection of Bigelow Boulevard and Herron Avenue, about five minutes driving from the Advanced Technologies Center (ATC), Uber’s research facility for driverless technologies. The second car had its hazard lights on and was being inspected by a man with a lanyard around his neck in the apparent aftermath of an accident.

“I couldn’t see any of the damage,” says Jason, the Uber driver, who requested Quartz withhold his last name because he feared being deactivated by the company. But “there’s no reason for a self-driving Uber car to be pulled over in the way that it was, with another car right behind it with its flashers on.” Amber McCann, a Pittsburgh resident and one of Jason’s passengers that night, told Quartz the intersection is known as a place “where there’s a ton of rear-ending accidents.” Her friend and the car’s other passenger, Jeanette McCulloch, provided Quartz with a photo she took while driving by.

Uber said it was aware that another car had tapped the fender of one of its self-driving Fords on the night of Sept. 24. The company said that was the only incident it had heard of involving one of its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and that it was reported as the “lowest level”; it didn’t specify whether the car was in autonomous mode at the time. The company also didn’t have any record of a self-driving car turning the wrong way on a one-way street, either while in autonomous mode or because its human driver made a mistake.

While it would be easy to write these incidents off as minor mishaps, both suggest how much work Uber has left to do on its autonomous software, even as it’s begun putting real passengers in the cars. One reason Uber’s vehicles are currently traveling only a small area of Pittsburgh is because those are supposed to be the streets its engineers have carefully mapped and taught the cars about. If that’s really the case, no self-driving car should be turning the wrong way down a one-way street—nor should its safety driver, who is in theory the final check on the car’s autonomy.

Driverless vehicles also tend to operate in a cautious, hyper-logical manner and follow the rules of the road to a tee. Uber, again via its mapping efforts, has tried to prepare its cars to avoid certain tricky situations they might run into. On one street near the ATC in Pittsburgh, Uber engineers have instructed the self-driving cars to hang close to the curb because trucks making turns are more likely to swerve into the oncoming lane. By that same logic, the cars should also know certain intersections are hotspots for rear-ending accidents and be on the alert to avoid them, much as a savvy human driver would be. Uber’s approach differs from that of other companies such as Nvidia, which have focused on teaching computer systems to drive in a more adaptive, human-like way—by being introduced to situations a few times, and then applying what they learn to other encounters on the road.

See here for the background. There’s video at the link if you want to check it out. The Quartz story has been picked up by other outlets – Engadget, OppTrends, Jalopnik – and while they include the response from Uber about the incidents in question, the headlines are all negative from Uber’s perspective. I’m sure they’d like for that to turn around by the time this pilot ends.

Other rideshare companies sued over lack of access for disabled people

Noted for the record.

A state disability rights group has sued the ride-hailing apps Get Me and Fare in federal court, arguing that because the apps only partially offer text-to-speech software, they are unusable for blind people and therefore in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

For example, Austin resident and accessibility consultant Jeanine Lineback, who is blind, was able to set up an account but was not able to request a ride, the lawsuit says.

The Fare app was officially made accessible to blind individuals in its iPhone update Sunday, and the Android app will have the same update in two weeks, Fare’s CEO Michael Leto said. As a result, Leto expects the lawsuit to be dropped against Fare.

Officials with Get Me said they disagree they are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act because they do not provide public transportation.

The National Federation of the Blind chapter in Texas is suing on behalf of Lineback and four other Austinites, arguing that they are entitled to damages as well as an injunction against the apps, according to the lawsuit filed Tuesday. The injunction would require that the apps’ companies make these apps accessible to people who are blind.

When the National Federation of the Blind sued Uber in 2014 over some drivers refusing to transport blind individuals with guide dogs, Uber also argued that the Americans with Disabilities Act does not apply to them. However, the federation argued that private entities primarily engaged in providing transportation services are covered by the act, and Uber settled the lawsuit this summer.

[…]

“Get Me and other similar taxi services are a critical transportation option for many blind individuals in Austin, Texas,” the suit says. “Due to distances between destinations and the limitations of public transportation and paratransit, many blind persons must use taxi services to travel from one place to another.”

The suit also argues that if these kinds of apps put traditional taxis out of business, people who are blind will have even fewer options to get around. The suit says “other competing taxi services” operating in Austin have incorporated this technology into their apps, but does not specify which ones.

Color me unimpressed with GetMe’s defense. All of these rideshare companies need to have some level of accommodation for disabled riders. Perhaps the formula for it should be different than it is for a traditional cab company or public transit service, but it needs to be greater than zero, and they need to be accountable for it. That has to be a corollary of the way the vehicles for hire industry is changing. I hope GetMe can follow Fare’s lead and find a way to settle this rather than fight it out in court.

The city cab app

Meet Arro.

Houston’s fractured taxi market is headed toward a rare bit of unity, with a push by the city toward how people hail cabs in the 21st century.

As the taxi and limo industry adjusts to new ways of doing business, under intense competition from firms like Uber, city officials plan to consolidate dispatching via a private smartphone app in an attempt to buoy travel options for visitors and residents.

Citing a need to better use the nearly 4,000 taxi and limo permits across roughly 9,000 drivers, city officials announced Monday that Arro, a company already combining dispatch in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Chicago, will develop a universal taxi app for Houston’s 146 taxi companies.

“We’re excited to bring the taxi industry, fully, into the digital age,” said Tina Paez, director of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

Cab and limo companies encouraged the city to develop something to even the playing field with Uber, which has dominated the ride market since arriving legally in Houston in November 2014.

“I think you will have people come to rely on faster cab service than they do now,” said Duane Kamins, owner of Lone Star Cab Company.

The app would mean all cabs could be hailed based on who’s closest, breaking the taxi reliance on downtown cab stands and airport trips that leads to bunching of vehicles and a lack of available rides in other neighborhoods. The app also provides an emergency scenario, should Uber – which opposes some of Houston’s regulations – bail right before thousands descend for the Super Bowl.

City Council is expected to discuss the app at its meeting next week.

Starting with consolidating taxi companies into a single online dispatch system, the app will eventually expand to include other features such as transit schedules, real-time traffic information and bike sharing information.

Council member Michael Kubosh, however, questioned at a Monday committee meeting why the city was entering into the app business – or even encouraging a vendor to jump in.

“If you want government intervention and you all are holding hands singing Kumbaya, I will vote for your government intervention,” Kubosh said.

No taxpayer money will be used to develop or advertise the app, though city staff will guide the process with Arro, and elected officials could devote time to promoting it.

I don’t see any problem with the city’s involvement, especially given the other features mentioned. Cabs remain a regulated utility, so there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the city should get make this kind of investment. The concerns CM Greg Travis raised about Arro’s app receiving mediocre user ratings are more worrisome, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a good idea, and it brings independent cabbies into the fold as well. Let’s see what the beta version looks like and go from there.

Who’s afraid of Uber’s driverless car test?

Transportation safety officials, at least some of them.

Uber

Uber’s decision to bring self-driving taxis to the streets of Pittsburgh this week is raising alarms among a swath of safety experts who say that the technology is not nearly ready for prime time.

The unprecedented experiment will launch even though Pennsylvania has yet to pass basic laws that permit the testing of self-driving cars or rules that would govern what would happen in a crash. Uber is also not required to pass along any data from its vehicles to regulators.

Meanwhile, researchers note, autonomous cars have been thrown off by bridges, a particular problem in Pittsburgh, which has more bridges than any other major U.S. city.

“They are essentially making the commuters the guinea pigs,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer-protection advocate and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Of course there are going to be crashes. You can do the exact same tests without having average citizens in your car.”

But advocates of autonomous vehicles say that the technology might never have happened if companies had to wait for governments to pass rules first. With nearly 37,000 Americans dying in car crashes every year, largely because of driver errors, technologists have stressed the critical need to push forward on testing driverless cars on public roads.

[…]

[Roger Cohen, policy director for Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation] and Bryant Walker Smith, an autonomous-vehicle expert at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, are both comfortable with the tests because of the safety drivers. Still, they acknowledged that doesn’t mean it will be collision-free. “You’re not going to have perfection. There is going to be trial and error, and it’s not going to be problem free,” Cohen said.

Even so, the effort is raising concern from safety experts who say the technology has major limitations that can be very dangerous. Self-driving cars have trouble seeing in bad weather. Sudden downpours, snow and especially puddles make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to detect lines on pavement and thereby stay in one lane.

Walker Smith added that self-driving cars have sometimes confused bridges for other obstacles. “People need to understand both the potential and the limitations of these systems, and inviting them inside is part of that education,” he said.

The vehicles also have difficulty understanding human gestures — for example, a crosswalk guard in front of a local elementary school may not be understood, said Mary Cummings, director of Duke University’s Humans and Autonomy Lab, at a Senate hearing in March. She recommended that the vehicles not be allowed to operate near schools.

Then there’s a the human factor: Researchers have shown that people like to test and prank robots. Today, a GPS jammer, which some people keep in their trunks to block police from tracking them, will easily throw off a self-driving car’s ability to sense where it is, Cummings said.

For perspective, autonomous vehicles in Google’s fleet have driven just shy of 2 million miles as of Aug. 31. New York City taxicabs drive 1.4 million miles in just over a day, Cummings said. Uber declined to reveal how many miles its driverless cars have logged on public roads but said it will be testing Ford Fusions there, then Volvos. The program will be opt-in, with a select group of Uber customers getting an email asking if they want to participate. Both vehicles have been vetted on test tracks in Pittsburgh, the company said.

See here for some background. We’ll get some data on the safety question one way or the other, and while I’m wary of this it is important to remember that the point of comparison is not “no problems at all” but “the amount of problems one would expect with human drivers instead of robot drivers”. These things could experience some problems and still be an improvement in safety. Or not – like I said, we’ll find out. I’m more interested in the rider experience. How many of Uber’s customers that they have invited to give this a try will do so? What will they think, and how many of them will want to do it again? How will the people who aren’t invited to try this feel about it – jealous, relieved, something else? I can’t wait to hear the answers.

Google enters the rideshare market

This will be worth watching.

Google is moving onto Uber Technologies Inc.’s turf with a ride-sharing service to help San Francisco commuters join carpools, a person familiar with the matter said, jumping into a booming but fiercely competitive market.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall, the person said. Waze, which Google acquired in 2013, offers real-time driving directions based on information from other drivers.

Unlike Uber and its crosstown San Francisco rival Lyft Inc., which each largely operate as on-demand taxi businesses, Waze wants to connect riders with drivers who are already headed in the same direction. The company has said it aims to make fares low enough to discourage drivers from operating as taxi drivers. Waze’s current pilot program charges riders at most 54 cents a mile—less than most Uber and Lyft rides—and, for now, Google doesn’t take a fee.

Some years ago, I remember reading a story in the Chronicle about Houston drivers cruising through the park-and-ride lots in the mornings to pick up passengers for the commute into downtown. They were doing this because having an extra person or two meant they could take the HOV lane, thus greatly reducing the drive time they’d face if they went solo, as they would have done otherwise. This was done more or less ad hoc – I’m pretty sure this was all before Facebook and smartphones were things – but it seemed to work pretty well. I bring it up because that’s what this story reminds me of; having the smartphone app and the financial backing of a behemoth like Google just formalizes what had been an ad hoc process borne of frustration and impatience. I have no idea how well this will scale outside of a unique environment like the San Francisco area, but if anyone can make it into something viable, it’s Google. Slate and the Associated Press have more.

How do other states regulate ridesharing?

The Texas Legislature would like to know.

Uber

As Texas lawmakers consider filing legislation next year related to ride-hailing companies, they learned Tuesday that more than 30 states have passed laws calling for some level of regulation of companies like Uber and Lyft.

A report presented by Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute analyzed state and municipal regulations since 2012. It found that 24 states passed legislation requiring ride-hailing apps, sometimes referred to as transportation network companies, must apply for a state permit before operating. The report also found that 30 states require background checks on the driver before or a specific amount of time after the driver begins working.

Lyft

“Transportation network companies have expanded rapidly to cities worldwide,” Ginger Goodin, a senior research engineer and director at the institute, told House Transportation Committee members at a hearing Tuesday. “However, they do not fit neatly within our current regulatory schemes.”

[…]

According to Goodin, there is no statewide policy in the country that requires fingerprint-based background checks. The group did not look into the number of municipalities that require those checks.

“There are many questions and unknowns,” Goodin said. The institute expects to continue to research the ride-hailing companies in the future.

You can see a copy of the report here. It seems very likely we are going to get some kind of statewide Uber/Lyft bill, it’s just a matter of whether the bill is a complete sop to them or if it tries to balance their interests with those of the cities and existing cab companies. The two Transportation chairs – Sen. Robert Nichols and Rep. Joe Pickett – are decent, and the guy who introduced the statewide bill last session (Rep. Chris Paddie) took the process seriously, so if those three are among the main movers, it’ll probably be all right. Just keep the chuckleheads like Sen. Don Huffines away from it, that’s all I ask.

Rideshare companies in Austin are complying with its fingerprint requirements

Well, what do you know?

Uber

All eight of the ride-hailing companies operating in Austin met a city requirement to have at least half of the rides they provided in July come from drivers who passed fingerprint-based background checks, according to a city memo released this week.

Achieving that Aug. 1 benchmark — the first major regulatory milestone since the Proposition 1 election in May — shows how quickly the smaller competitors built their networks of drivers, even with the fingerprinting checks and other requirements that prompted Uber and Lyft to leave Austin.

Taken as a group, the smaller companies provided more than 350,000 trips in July, almost 11,300 a day, during what would normally be a slack period because enrollment is light at area colleges during the summer.

[…]

Lyft

The city since January has received 3,771 fingerprint-based, criminal background reports on potential ride-hailing service drivers, according to the memo from Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar to the Austin City Council.

All of those, including those whose checks occurred earlier in the year, were vetted against a list of disqualifying criminal offenses set out in a June 2016 ordinance, Austin Transportation Department spokeswoman Cheyenne Krause said. Of those applicants, 86 were rejected for failing their background checks.

The companies, most of which still have some drivers working for them who haven’t been fingerprinted, reported having 8,985 drivers. However, the memo says, individual drivers might be counted two times or more in that total because many of them work for more than one of the eight companies: Fare, Fasten, GetMe, InstaRyde, RideAustin, Tride, Wingz and Z-Trip.

The companies, by city ordinance, had to by Aug. 1 have at least 50 percent of their rides for the preceding month provided by a city rules-compliant driver, either as a percentage of hours driven or miles driven. According to the memo, using information supplied by the companies, Wingz and Z-Trip were at 100 percent. RideAustin was next, at 89 percent, followed in order by InstaRyde (86 percent), Tride (73 percent), Fare (69 percent), Fasten (58 percent) and GetMe (55 percent).

It gets harder from here – by next February, 99% of hours driven or miles driven must be provided by compliant drivers. I suspect the city may wind up being a bit lenient on that, if the companies lag and it makes sense for them to do so, but we’ll see. Point is, the companies that are in Austin post-Prop 1 have cleared the first hurdle. Was that so hard? You tell me.

Driverless taxis debut in Singapore

Not fast enough, Uber.

The world’s first self-driving taxis will be picking up passengers in Singapore starting Thursday.

Select members of the public will be able to hail a free ride through their smartphones in taxis operated by nuTonomy, an autonomous vehicle software startup. While multiple companies, including Google and Volvo, have been testing self-driving cars on public roads for several years, nuTonomy says it will be the first to offer rides to the public. It will beat ride-hailing service Uber, which plans to offer rides in autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, by a few weeks.

The service will start small — six cars now, growing to a dozen by the end of the year. The ultimate goal, say nuTonomy officials, is to have a fully self-driving taxi fleet in Singapore by 2018, which will help sharply cut the number of cars on Singapore’s congested roads. Eventually, the model could be adopted in cities around the world, nuTonomy says.

For now, the taxis only will run in a 2.5-square-mile business and residential district called “one-north,” and pick-ups and drop-offs will be limited to specified locations. And riders must have an invitation from nuTonomy to use the service. The company says dozens have signed up for the launch, and it plans to expand that list to thousands of people within a few months.

The cars — modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics — have a driver in front who is prepared to take back the wheel and a researcher in back who watches the car’s computers. Each car is fitted with six sets of Lidar — a detection system that uses lasers to operate like radar — including one that constantly spins on the roof. There are also two cameras on the dashboard to scan for obstacles and detect changes in traffic lights.

The testing time-frame is open-ended, said nuTonomy CEO Karl Iagnemma. Eventually, riders may start paying for the service, and more pick-up and drop-off points will be added. NuTonomy also is working on testing similar taxi services in other Asian cities as well as in the U.S. and Europe, but he wouldn’t say when.

“I don’t expect there to be a time where we say, ‘We’ve learned enough,'” Iagnemma said.

Doug Parker, nuTonomy’s chief operating officer, said autonomous taxis could ultimately reduce the number of cars on Singapore’s roads from 900,000 to 300,000.

“When you are able to take that many cars off the road, it creates a lot of possibilities. You can create smaller roads, you can create much smaller car parks,” Parker said. “I think it will change how people interact with the city going forward.”

Uber is planning to roll out its driverless car pilot in Pittsburgh shortly, but they will not be first in line. The claim that driverless cars will ultimately solve traffic congestion is one of which I remain deeply skeptical, but we’ll see, perhaps sooner than I think. In the meantime, you can read more about NuTonomy, which has its origins at MIT, and this pilot test here, here, and here. Would you ride in one of these things?

Driverless Ubers

Ready or not, here they come.

Uber

The option to hail a ride in a self-driving car, which was science fiction just a few years ago, will soon be available to Uber users in Pittsburgh, the first time the technology has been offered to the general public.

Within weeks, the company announced Thursday, customers will be able to opt into a test program and summon an autonomous Ford Fusion. But since the technology has not been perfected, the cars will come with human backup drivers to handle any unexpected situations.

Although other companies including Google are testing self-driving cars on public roads, none offers rides to regular people. As an enticement, the autonomous rides will be free, the company said.

Uber, which has a self-driving research lab in Pittsburgh, has no immediate plans to deploy autonomous cars in other cities. But in an interview with The Associated Press, CEO Travis Kalanick said development of the vehicles is paramount for the San Francisco company, which has grown exponentially after starting seven years ago.

“We’ve got to be laser-focused on getting this to market, because it’s not a side project for us,” he said. “This is everything. This is all the marbles for Uber.”

Without drivers, the cost of hailing a ride will be cheaper than owning a car, changing the way we all get around, Kalanick has said.

By using human backup drivers, Uber is basically testing the technology and taking people along for the ride, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina professor who studies self-driving technology.

“Part of this is marketing in the sense that they’re going to be doing continued research and development of these systems,” he said.

The story notes that Uber has acquired Otto, the startup company that provided kits for driverless trucks. As you know, I remain skeptical, not of driverless cars themselves – I have no doubt the technology is coming, probably sooner than I’m comfortable with – but of the grand predictions of how they will reshape society. I think the questions are more complicated, and the time frame is longer, than some people think. But who knows? I’m sure the lure of free rides will give Uber plenty of demand for this test, and there will be much to learn from it. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes. And hey, driverless Ubers sure would solve that pesky background check issue, elsewhere. The Wall Street Journal, Kevin Drum, the Guardian, and the Chron’s Chris Tomlinson have more.

New study questions Uber effect on DUI

Interesting.

Uber

The introduction of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft hasn’t had any impact on the number of fatalities related to drunken driving, a newly published study finds.

Researchers at the University of Southern California and Oxford University looked at the 100 most populated metropolitan areas, analyzing data from before and after the introduction of Uber and its competitors, and found that access to ride-sharing apps had no effect on traffic fatalities related to drinking alcohol.

Uber has repeatedly pointed to drunken-driving reduction as a benefit of its service. A 2015 blog post on its website, titled “Making Our Roads Safer For Everyone,” notes a survey Uber conducted with the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving that found anecdotal evidence that people believe their friends are less likely to drive drunk since the introduction of Uber.

[…]

In the latest study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the researchers analyzed county-level data from 100 metropolitan areas in dozens of states and controlled for the effects of state laws that could affect drunk driving fatalities, such as bans on texting while driving, marijuana-related legislation and taxes on alcohol.

The authors also separated total alcohol-related traffic fatalities from those that occurred on weekends or holidays, and found no reduction in deaths with the introduction of Uber in either case.

So, why? The authors of the study speculated that drunk people might not want to shell out for the services.

The abstract is here; it looks like the full study is not freely available. I tend to give Uber and its ilk the benefit of the doubt here, as they do provide an option for people who may not have, or may not think they have, any alternative to driving. It may be a few years before we can feel confident in an answer to this. In the meantime, add this to the pile.