Uber is rolling out self-driving car test programs across the country and recently expanded to San Francisco. They did this without explicit permission from the city and after a brief battle, the company has pulled its self-driving cars off the city’s streets.
The program started out just last week with a fleet of Volvo XC90s and Ford Fusions. The move came after three months of testing in Pittsburgh and was supposed to increase the scope of the program.
The Pittsburgh fleet was small, limited to a certain area, and available only to select riders. The San Francisco program had no such limitations and was open to anyone who hailed an Uber in the city.
Riders received an in-app notification that a self-driving Uber was available and then had the choice to accept that ride or decline and wait for a human driver. Either way, there was still a human at the wheel. In the case of the self-driving cars, it was an engineer ready to take control if the car did something wrong.
That was how Uber got around asking the city for permission to use these cars. Since there was someone at the wheel, Uber claimed these weren’t autonomous but semi-autonomous and therefore exempt from getting the additional permits they would otherwise require.
The state of California didn’t share their opinion and claimed that operating these cars was illegal. They demanded Uber get the necessary testing permits or face legal action.
Uber stood firm, claiming they were exempt because the cars were not self-driving. They released a statement detailing their point of view:
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.
As convincing as that might be, the state was having none of it and revoked the registrations of Uber’s 16 self-driving vehicles. It said in a statement the registrations were improperly issued because they were not marked as test vehicles. They went on to say Uber is welcome to reapply and they’ll happily take a look at the company’s new requests, properly filed.
Uber, of course, has now pulled those vehicles and is looking to redeploy them somewhere in California in adherence with state guidelines.