Mayor Ed Lee stepped into the self-driving fray yesterday, issuing a statement demanding that Uber cease picking up passengers in the company's autonomous Volvo SUVs immediately. As the Chronicle reports, the Mayor's words seem to have little effect on the tech giant as it continued to run its computer-piloted cars on San Francisco streets in the face of mounting opposition from both the DMV and state regulators.
"The Mayor demands Uber stop the unpermitted and unlawful testing of autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco until they obtain the appropriate permitting from the DMV," reads the mayoral statement, per KRON 4. "The Mayor expects Uber to do what is required by law and obtain a permit from the DMV, just like every other company testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco."
That the company has at least publicly ignored Lee's demand — Uber has not responded to SFist's or other media outlets' requests for comment — perhaps speaks to the fact that Uber executives realize the mayor is largely impotent in this matter. The Examiner reports that Lee asked officials with the SFPD if they have the authority to impound the autonomous vehicles, only to be told that they do not. Basically, Uber can keep doing what it wants on San Francisco's streets and simply battle it out in court (should it come to that) — a course of action the company has demonstrated an appetite for in the past.
The crux of the matter is Uber's failure to obtain the proper permits to run their vehicles on public roads. Interestingly, the Chronicle notes that obtaining such a permit is neither complicated nor expensive. Furthermore, the paper speculates that regulators would have most likely approved the application. Uber, it seems, felt like going its own unpermitted way on principle. As noted previously, the company argues its vehicles do not fit the state's definition of "autonomous" as they require an Uber employee to monitor them at all times — and thus do not require permitting.
Perhaps realizing it can't physically prevent Uber from doing what it wants, the Mayor's office has resorted to appealing to Uber's sense of good citizenship. "This is not just a matter of following the law, it’s a matter of public safety," Lee's statement continues. "Our primary concern is keeping our streets safe for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists. Street safety is especially important this week as San Francisco deals with inclement weather."
And while that argument will most likely fall on deaf ears, it does carry real weight. The SF Bicycle Coalition yesterday released "a warning" that the self-driving Uber's don't correctly negotiate right-hand turns on streets with bike lanes — potentially putting cyclists at risk. In fact, according to the Bicycle Coalition, the car's technology is such that humans have to take control for each and every right-hand turn where a bike lane is present.
That, plus the several documented incidents of the self-driving SUVs running red lights, suggests that the Mayor is doing more than just blowing smoke. It remains to be seen however just what, if anything, city and state officials can do about it. Uber appears to be banking on the answer to that question being "nothing."
Previously: Uber Blames Its Drivers As More Reports Of Self-Driving Cars Running Red Lights Surface
State Regulators Tell Uber It Must Immediately Stop Self-Driving Car Program
Uber Says 'FU' To DMV, Rolls Out Self-Driving Cars Without Approval