With Uber executives vowing to keep their self-driving cars on San Francisco streets in the face of opposition from both local and state officials, Mayor Ed Lee is exploring the possibility of taking the tech giant to court. The Examiner reports that, at Lee's request, the City Attorney’s Office is looking into joining a proposed lawsuit against Uber by the state Attorney General’s Office.
Uber launched the self-driving ride-hail service last Wednesday without first acquiring the DMV permits that state regulators say are necessary marking the first time that any car service in the country has begun taking passengers using the new self-driving vehicle technology. Uber executives allege the permits are only required for "autonomous" vehicles, and that the company's Volvo SUVs don't qualify.
"[We] respectfully disagree with the California Department of Motor Vehicles legal interpretation of today’s autonomous regulations, in particular that Uber needs a testing permit to operate its self-driving cars in San Francisco," Uber's Anthony Levandowski explained on Friday. "The regulations apply to 'autonomous vehicles.' And autonomous vehicles are defined as cars equipped with technology that can — and I quote — 'drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.' But the self-driving Ubers that we have in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh today are not capable of driving 'without active physical control or monitoring.' "
The DMV, as previously noted, vehemently disagrees. “DMV considers them fully autonomous,” DMV spokesperson Armando Botello told the Ex.
With Uber doing what it does best (a.k.a. whatever it wants), and the SFPD unable to impound the cars, Lee apparently feels the city's best recourse may be a legal one. "I can’t have people experimenting and have the risk to safety at the front end,” Lee explained. “We will support the [state] attorney general," he noted, before adding that "I've already asked the city attorney and haven’t gotten a report back yet, but clearly we’re going to be collaborative with our attorney general to make sure the DMV permits are at least the minimum.”
The Mayor's safety-related concerns are more than just talk, as the self-driving Ubers have already been spotted running red lights around the city. Uber says those incidents are all do to human error, but without the mandated reporting that DMV permitting would require, outside auditors cannot look at raw vehicle data and have to take the company at its word. What's more, as the SF Bicycle Coalition noted last week and The Guardian further reported today, the software governing the autonomous vehicles can't properly navigate right-hand turns on corners with bike lanes occupying the area between the curb and the right vehicle lane. In response to this known shortcoming, Uber has reportedly instructed its drivers to manually handle such turns.
“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” SF Bike Coalition spokesperson Chris Cassidy said of right-hand turns through bike lanes in conversation with The Guardian. “The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”
Mayor Lee met with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick on Friday, and he brought up the instance of red-light running captured on video. Much like the rest of us, he seemed wary of Uber's assertion that its human driver was to blame. “[Kalanick] claimed — and I don’t know this for a fact — that the technology was turned off at the time,” Lee told the Examiner.
The truth behind Kalanick's claim, much like Uber's insistence that it can legally operate its unpermitted self-driving cars on SF streets, may just have to get worked out it court.