Starting Wednesday, Uber is expanding its tests of self-driving vehicles to San Francisco allowing the public to ride in autonomous Volvos. Test drivers will be present in the SUVs in case a human needs to intervene. Tests will be limited to downtown San Francisco in about two dozen Volvos.
What is surprising about Uber's decision is that it is launching the rollout without the prior permission of the California DMV.
State law requires companies to receive DMV approval before testing self-driving vehicles on public roads. Twenty of Uber's competitors have done just that, including Google, Tesla, Ford and GM. Perhaps emboldened by CEO Travis Kalanick addition to the Donald Trump Strategic/Policy Forum (alongside Elon Musk) Uber opted to not apply for a permit to test autonomous vehicles. According to CNN, it does not believe the state's rules apply to its program.
"This is not actually an autonomous vehicle because we're launching with a test driver," Uber executive Lior Ron told CNN. "This is sort of similar to a Tesla autopilot or any sort of adaptive cruise control you would find on the road today. You need to have the vehicle operator in the car at all times."
Complicating matters, the company has quietly had self-driving cars roaming the streets of San Francisco for at least a few weeks without making it public, potentially violating the DMV's mandate. Uber said it has shared its perspective that its cars don't qualify as autonomous with the DMV. The California DMV requires "autonomous" vehicle providers to register with the state, something that Google, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, GM's Cruise and Baidu have done. Companies are required to file reports when drivers intercede or their cars crash. Tesla Motors doesn't file any such reports and similarly believes it doesn't meet the requirements for autonomous vehicles.
As Bloomberg adds, while Uber executives use the words "self-driving" and clumsily trip over the word "autonomous," the definitions are up for debate, apparently. The DMV defines an autonomous vehicle as "technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator." Uber's self-driving cars will have two humans involved, one ready to grab the wheel and another monitoring for pedestrians, directing the car to change lanes and helping record incidents.
To be sure, prior such experiments have had several close calls: "In one such ride-along Tuesday, a driver took control of the vehicle more than a dozen times in less than 30 minutes. His reasons included: He was worried that the car would get too close to a pedestrian, that the vehicle wouldn't let another merge and that the car would potentially create gridlock by entering an already crowded intersection. Other reasons were more mysterious. Sometimes the car would simply hand over control to the driver with little explanation. The driver said that the car was probably getting its sensors overloaded. In this one short jaunt around downtown San Francisco, when another car honked at the self-driving car for trying to change lanes, the Uber driver took control of the vehicle."
The DMV, predivtably, was not happy with Uber's unilateral decision and in a statement the California agency was critical of Uber's decision.
"We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested," the DMV said. "Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same."
But it's unclear if Uber will face any consequences. The DMV declined to say what, if any, recourse would be pursued for companies testing without a permit. Otto, Uber's self-driving arm, has defied regulators before without consequence. Earlier this year, before being acquired by Uber, it tested a self-driving truck in Nevada, despite a warning from the state's DMV that it was violating state rules. The news was revealed in a Backchannel report.
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There may be another reason for Uber's spontaneous decision: testing in the dark will leave the public with less information about how well its self-driving cars work.
California's DMV requires manufacturers to report all crashes involving autonomous vehicles within 10 business days. Manufacturers must also annually report instances when a human test driver seizes control of the vehicle from its autonomous system for safety's sake. The DMV then releases this information to the public. In the case of Uber, it may be exempt from these requirements.
Ron wouldn't guarantee that Uber would share information about accidents. "As we operate those vehicles we'll determine how exactly and what exactly we want to share," Ron said. "We'll share more and refine more the policy as we go."
In other words, there will be no public notification should one or more of these Volvos crash.
San Francisco is not the first city where Uber is rolling out its experimental program. As we reported previously, Uber is currently giving its customers the chance to ride in self-driving cars in Pittsburgh as well. Pennsylvania does not have stringent rules for disclosing information about the vehicles' performance.
The California DMV has been criticized for being slow to embrace autonomous driving. At least one DMV official has publicly complained about lacking the tools to determine if a self-driving vehicle is safe. The DMV missed a deadline for issuing rules for the deployment of autonomous vehicles. When the draft rules did arrive, they required a licensed driver in the self-driving vehicle at all times. At the time, Google said it was "gravely disappointed" CNN notes.
Ron declined to criticize the DMV, saying it does a great job and he looks forward to working with it. But he stressed the importance of pushing innovation forward. "We're very focused on moving fast," he said. "Everyday that passes where we don't make progress on technology, where we don't help push the envelope on bringing some answer to that huge fatality and safety problem in the world is another day where we've sort of foregone the future."
The DMV has proposed updating its rules to clarify the definition of autonomous. The new language would read, "Terms such as 'self-driving', 'automated', 'auto-pilot', or other statements made that are likely to induce a reasonably prudent person to believe a vehicle is autonomous, as defined, constitute an advertisement that the vehicle is autonomous."
For now, at least, Uber is calling its cars self-driving.
"The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone," Uber said in an e-mailed statement. "While it won't happen overnight, self-driving will be an important part of the future."
At least until a few pedestrians are run over by said "self-driving" cars, at which point the "promise" will be put on hold indefinitely.