A Rocky Start for Autonomous Ubers In San Francisco

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Uber has expanded its autonomous-car testing to include San Francisco, but its first day was a bumpy one, and its future is uncertain.

Up until now, Uber has been testing its autonomous cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This effort was restricted to a small section of territory and riders, but the rollout of autonomous Ford Fusions and Volvo XC90s in San Francisco encompasses the city, which means that any UberX rider could end up in the back seat of one.

That was apparent when I stepped out of an appointment near the Hayes Valley neighborhood and snapped one of the autonomous Fusions zipping by, apparently with Uber’s two engineers in the front seats.


The rooftop hunk of technology, complete with the spinning sensor on top, clearly marks this Fusion as something special. And it was clearly in the city mix, as it ended up behind our Hyundai Santa Fe test car on the approach to Market Street.

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This Fusion appeared to be behaving itself, with no untoward maneuvers. The same couldn’t be said for the Volvo XC90 that hit SF streets the same day – it was recorded running a red light on Third Street.

The San Francisco Examiner first reported on this embarrassing gaffe, and Uber attributed it to driver error. That’s not hard to believe, particularly if you’ve ridden in a rideshare helmed by a driver distracted by their navigation and/or pickup requests. One can imagine that the engineers in these autonomous Ubers have plenty to keep them busy, aside from the road ahead.

Launch day also saw another wrinkle in Uber’s plan, as California’s DMV demanded an immediate halt to Uber’s SF autonomous experiment:

Uber’s action is illegal, California DMV Deputy Director Brian G. Soublet wrote in a letter to Uber late Wednesday, which was also sent to press.

Soublet added that the ride-hail behemoth was required to obtain an autonomous vehicle testing permit before operating self-driving vehicles on city streets.

“If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action,” the DMV wrote, “including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief.”

Uber got its start by flouting taxi regulations while providing an undeniably similar service, so there’s no there’s no reason to think the company would not approach autonomy the same way. Uber’s blog admits as much, even as it resolves to push ahead:

Finally, we understand that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco. We have looked at this issue carefully and we don’t believe we do. Before you think, “there they go again” let us take a moment to explain:

First, we are not planning to operate any differently than in Pittsburgh, where our pilot has been running successfully for several months. Second, the rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them. For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.

But there is a more fundamental point—how and when companies should be able to engineer and operate self-driving technology. We have seen different approaches to this question. Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety. And several cities and states have recognized that complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation. Pittsburgh, Arizona, Nevada and Florida in particular have been leaders in this way, and by doing so have made clear that they are pro technology. Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world’s dynamism, will take a similar view.

Flattery might get you everywhere, but California might be immune to this round of it. SFPD’s traffic division wasn’t even aware that the autonomous Ubers had hit SF’s streets, and there seems to be little interest from Uber in cooperating with current regulations. And, an autonomous Volvo was spotted on the first day also having a difficult time with traffic rules.

This all comes under the cloud of congestion that rideshare services have visited upon San Francisco, and anyone stuck in standstill traffic surrounded by Ubers and Lyfts can relate. There are now 45,000 licensed rideshare drivers for the city, which dwarfs the mere 1,800 taxis on the streets. With SF now having the third-worst US traffic congestion, the city government is increasingly training its focus on the impact rideshare services are having.

So far, Uber and Lyft have been able to pave their own rideshare paths, and tech-friendly SF has been an eager enabler. That may change as the effects of their experiments become more complicated.

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