A little over three years after it unleashed some self-driving cars in San Francisco without any legal permit to do so, Uber has just been granted a new permit to test the autonomous vehicles on California streets.
As Reuters reports, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a permit to Uber today to restart its self-driving car program here. This comes two years after one of its self-driving cars killed a woman in Arizona, and three years after the department yanked 16 registrations Uber had for its autonomous cars to stop its unsanctioned testing of them.
In the move-fast-and-break-things era of December 2016, former CEO Travis Kalanick decided to flout California regulations and put its then-brand-new autonomous vehicles to work — not just testing them on the streets of San Francisco, but actually picking up passengers in them as well. It didn't take long for both the city and the state to react badly, and this led Uber to take its self-driving Volvo SUVs to Arizona, where one of them flipped over in a collision just a few weeks later, in March 2017.
Uber decided to temporarily take the cars off the road at that point. But they'd be back on the road within a year, and another of these autonomous Volvos would, one night in March 2018 in Tempe, fail to recognize a woman walking her bicycle across the street as a pedestrian, killing her. That woman was 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, and it would later come out that the robot car had not been programmed to recognize people as people when they were not crossing a street in a crosswalk. It would also come out that the company had recently changed its procedures to allow the autonomous cars to be tested with only one safety driver inside — and that the female safety driver on that evening was streaming an episode of The Voice when the car struck Herzberg.
The company lucked out in March 2019 when prosecutors in the Arizona county where the crash occurred decided that Uber was not criminally liable in the incident — prosecutors left open the possibility of charging the distracted safety driver who failed to intervene, Rafaela Vasquez — and in November the National Transportation Safety Board issued its ruling holding both Uber and Vasquez at fault.
Uber has dramatically reduced its testing of self-driving cars in the wake of the Arizona crash and the subsequent investigation, and the incident had a chilling effect on the entire self-driving car industry, with Herzberg becoming the first death at the hands of an autonomous vehicle.
According to Reuters, after getting the new permit in California, Uber says it has no immediate plans to restart its testing program for the vehicles here. And the company pledges to inform all "regulatory stakeholders" if and when it does.