Uber's self-driving cars are now picking up passengers on the streets of San Francisco. Starting today, the company will make its autonomous vehicles available to customers hailing an UberX ride through the app. However, in the classic Uber style of not giving a f**k, Bloomberg reports that the company is doing so without the requisite approval from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
"[We] understand that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco," the company explained on its blog. "We have looked at this issue carefully and we don’t believe we do."
Here's the argument: The DMV requires that companies obtain special permits to operate "autonomous vehicles," which it defines as "technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator." Uber claims its self-driving cars still require monitoring from Uber employees — an engineer and a driver ready to step in and take control should something go wrong — and as such do not meet the requirement.
The DMV, for its part, disagrees. "Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads," a spokesperson with the department emailed Bloomberg. "Uber should do the same."
Uber's San Francisco program is similar to the one that launched this past September in Pittsburgh, and, just like in the Steel City, was presaged here by autonomous Ubers being driven around SF by engineers for map-making purposes. One key difference, however, is the type of cars in question. According to TechCrunch, the company is using Volvo SUVs in San Francisco as opposed to the retrofitted Ford Fusions employed in Pittsburgh.
“The car is one of the reasons we’re really excited about this partnership, it’s a really tremendous vehicle,” Uber ATG Head of Product Matt Sweeney told TechCrunch. “It’s Volvo’s new SPA, the scalable platform architecture - the first car on their brand new, built from the ground up vehicle architecture, so you get all new mechanical, all new electrical, all new compute.”
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick spoke with Good Morning America about the launch, and insisted that ultimately this move to self-driving cars is about making streets safer (and certainly not cutting Uber drivers out of the equation). However, Uber's decision to sidestep DMV permitting arguably undermines that statement, as the AP notes that a condition of obtaining a permit is the requirement to report accidents to state officials. No permit means no need to report those accidents, and both the public and state regulators can be kept in the dark as to the vehicles' safety.
Also, as Bloomberg noted after a test ride, "a driver took control of the vehicle more than a dozen times in less than 30 minutes," in several of those instances to avoid getting too close to a pedestrian — a scene that will likely play out many times over the coming months.
Just passed a 'self-driving' Uber that lurched into the intersection on Van Ness, on a red, nearly hitting my Lyft.— Annie Gaus (@AnnieGaus) December 14, 2016
Uber executives, as they are wont to do, assume that state officials will eventually come to see things their way. "Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety," the company techsplains on its blog. "And several cities and states have recognized that complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation. [...] Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world’s dynamism, will take a similar view."
And maybe they will, but Kalanick is not waiting around to find out.
Despite all the claims of how slow and safe these cars are, this situation gives a bit of a more ominous spin to the Silicon Valley mantra of "move fast and break things," when those things could potentially be people.
Update: Well that was fast. Here is a video, which the Examiner says is from today, showing an Uber self-driving car running a red light — blowing through a crosswalk with a pedestrian in it.
"Safety is our top priority," an Uber spokesperson told The Verge. "This incident has been reported and we are looking into what happened."