Uber has made no secret of their intention of developing driverless vehicles for their ride-sharing service. Unfortunately, early tests have not gone well and not for the reasons you might think.
Not Driverless Yet
Just as with Walt Disney and his “Animatronics,” Uber understands that a business can be much more profitable if you don’t have to pay a human to do the work. The ultimate goal of their testing is to one day be able to offer customers the same ridesharing convenience they always have but without a driver behind the wheel.
Current testing is occurring in Arizona. The cars still have a human behind the wheel, but the drivers don’t interact with the car unless the car itself signals that it needs assistance. On the face of it, this would seem a safe and logical way to test the feasibility of the driverless cab of the future. But why is Uber testing their cars in Arizona as opposed to their company headquarters in San Francisco?
It Came Down to $150. Or Did It?
The city of San Francisco defines an autonomous vehicle as one that is capable of operating without the physical control or monitoring of a “natural person.” While awkwardly worded, the regulation seems fairly straightforward. The city requires that any company doing such testing must obtain a permit, at the cost of $150, to do so. Evidently, Uber used their own interpretation of the statute to avoid registering their tests with the city. They maintain that since there was a “natural person” behind the wheel that the car was being monitored and therefore was not an AV.
The battle of definitions began when city officials became aware of what Uber was doing after a picture of one of their cars surfaced. While there was a driver behind the wheel, it appeared that he was little more than a passenger. Why didn’t Uber simply register their intentions with the city and obtain a permit? Could they not afford the $150?
It wasn’t the matter of the permit with Uber, but with the stipulations that come along with it. The city requires that reports must be filed during the testing period. These reports include instances where the car is involved in a collision, violates a traffic law and details regarding the “disengagement rate” of the car. This disengagement rate is the number of times that control is shifted from the car back to the human driver.
Why So Cloak and Dagger?
Federal, state and local governments are working quickly to keep pace with self-driving technology. San Francisco may lead the country with the scope and vision of their legislation. During only a brief window of testing, five Uber vehicles were caught on camera running red lights. Uber contends that these mistakes were made while the car was under driver control, but how can one be sure? Had Uber secured a permit, these incidents would have necessitated reporting to the city. Without the permit, it appears Uber hoped to fly under the radar.
There’s A Lot at Stake
Advancing automotive technology has turned the rideshare industry into a bit of an arms race. Uber is not the only company testing autonomous vehicles, and the company understands that they must keep pace in a highly competitive marketplace. However, splitting hairs with government over whether or not they are actually doing AV testing is not a good way to get ahead or to maintain the public trust.