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Why Uber’s self-driving program failed in San Francisco

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California’s DMV just shut down Uber’s autonomous vehicle pilot

One of Uber’s self-driving cars being tested in Pittsburgh.
A self-driving vehicle from Uber’s Advanced Technology Center
Uber

Just about a week ago, Uber’s semi-autonomous vehicles hit the streets of San Francisco as part of its latest pilot program. Last night, the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registrations of Uber’s 16 vehicles, and the company says it’s taking its program to another city for a public trial. What went wrong?

After a fairly seamless, high-profile launch in Pittsburgh, the rollout in San Francisco was bumpy right from the beginning. First, the DMV issued a warning to Uber that it had not obtained the proper testing permits for its pilot program. Then, a few hours after the trial began, The Verge reported that one of Uber’s cars ran a red light, nearly hitting a (human-driven) Lyft car.

Uber reviewed the case and determined it was actually the fault of the human driver sitting in the car—remember, Uber still has human drivers who can “take over” from the self-driving system as needed.

Then there was the bike lane problem. Uber’s vehicles had a nasty habit of driving into San Francisco’s bike lanes without warning. This was not the fault of humans but a software error, claimed Uber, noting that the problem had not come up in Pittsburgh, which also has a robust cycling network. Uber pledged to fix it.

Meanwhile, Uber’s spokespeople were busy performing some kind of Jedi mind trick-level PR, trying to convince journalists that the company didn’t apply for the permits —which cost $150 each—because the cars are not, indeed, autonomous. “It’s not about picking a fight,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s self-driving-car program director, told Recode. “It’s about doing the right thing, and we believe that bringing this tech to California is the right thing to do.”

Uber vehicles pulling into its SoMa warehouse in San Francisco
Brock Keeling

For a company that claims it’s trying to improve public safety, it seems counterintuitive to blatantly defy the DMV’s original, and very simple, request. And it doesn’t seem like Uber is willing to budge. After the DMV revoked the registrations of the vehicles, an Uber spokesperson told Recode, “We are open to having the conversation about applying for a permit, but Uber does not have plans to do so.” That means all California cities will likely be off-limits to Uber’s AV program.

(Every state has different rules; Michigan just passed legislation allowing fully autonomous testing, and California governor Jerry Brown granted special permission for a fully autonomous test in San Ramon.)

While flagrant flouting of the law is one problem that Uber is facing, there’s also another big problem the company’s self-driving program has to address: Its human drivers.

The recommendation from every safety-focused transportation group, including the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, of which Uber is a member, is that only fully autonomous cars be used in public trials—meaning there’s no steering wheel and no human can ever take over operation. This removes any chance of human error, which has been attributed to nearly every semi-autonomous vehicle crash so far.

Instead of trying to convince regulators that the cars are not autonomous, Uber should work to make its cars completely autonomous first, without risking the lives of its passengers or the cyclists and pedestrians on San Francisco’s streets.

Waymo minivans, powered by Google’s self-driving tech, will start public testing in 2017
Waymo

Contrast Uber’s approach with the public launch of Waymo, the new company that uses Google’s self-driving tech, which announced this week that its 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans are going to start public trials in 2017.

Google’s been testing its technology on California streets since 2009—as well as in several other cities recently—and obtained all the proper permits. The software has been explicitly programmed to recognize cyclists and stay out of bike lanes. And after over two million miles driven, Google’s cars have never been observed breaking the law, and been involved in about two dozen fender benders, only one of which was the car’s fault.

When it comes to summoning a vehicle to pick you up, which company would you choose?

Update: An Uber spokesperson confirmed the cars have already left the city. “Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck. 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.”

Maybe it had something to do with Governor Doug Ducey’s tweet?

Uber is also sharing photos of the exodus.