A few weeks ago, Uber quietly expanded its self-driving ride-hailing service to its hometown of San Francisco. The launch marked a triumphant leap forward just three short months after the company initially began offering riders in Pittsburgh the option of hailing a self-driving car. Unfortunately, the California Department of Motor Vehicles swiftly shut down the San Francisco operation by revoking the registrations on Uber’s 16 self-driving vehicles, citing the company’s failure to obtain the proper permits. That decision prompted Uber to announce it would look for another city to roll out its self-driving pilot program, but many questions remain about whether they will ever be able to pull it off in their home state.
After Uber announced the San Francisco self-driving pilot program, the California DMV was quick to shut it down. In a letter to Uber, the DMV’s deputy director Brian G. Soublet said Uber did not have the proper permits to operate self-driving cars on city streets. “It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” Soublet wrote. “Any action by Uber to continue the operation of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease until Uber complies.” After Uber didn’t move to obtain the permits, the DMV yanked the registration on 16 self-driving cars.
Uber had built up the San Francisco self-driving car roll-out as a pretty big deal. San Francisco is Uber’s hometown, after all, and would have been only the second city in the US where Uber users could hail a self-driving car. Uber, however, failed to obtain the same permits that Google, Tesla and General Motors are all required to have in order to operate self-driving vehicles on public roads. The DMV issued a warning letter to Uber before revoking the registrations to get the cars off the streets. It later came to light, through a report on Recode, that the company never even applied for the $150 permits, arguing instead that the cars are not actually autonomous. But you can’t have it both ways.
The expansion was intended to be a celebration of the company’s success in Pittsburgh, which was the proving ground for Uber’s experimental self-driving cars. The experiment began more than 18 months ago, when Uber’s human-driven research car was spotted tooling around the city’s streets. After lengthy development and testing phases, Uber finally launched its self-driving car service in Pittsburgh in September, although the cars still come with a human in the driver’s seat to comply with the law. Apparently, the DMV rules related to self-driving vehicles are different in California.
Alongside Uber’s attempts to expand its autonomous ride program comes the debut of the Volvo XC90 self-driving sport utility vehicle developed especially for Uber, which sports a host of high-tech features to keep riders safe while navigating urban traffic. The modified Volvo XC90, only the second self-driving car for the service to use for the public, was born in Pittsburgh at Uber’s Advanced Technology Center, before taking on the winding streets of San Francisco. The XC90 SUV is equipped with lidar, a type of radar using laser beams, as well as wireless technology and seven cameras to aid in its autonomous driving functions.
Uber still plans to add a second major city to its self-driving offerings, but that location is yet to be determined. Given the company’s failure to comply with California laws, it’s uncertain whether another city in the state will give Uber a chance – though Arizona seems poised to welcome them. The issue is complicated by safety concerns as well, following a report by The Verge about one of Uber’s self-driving cars in San Francisco allegedly running a red light and nearly hitting a human-driven car, which happened on the first and only day the autnomous cars were in operation.
“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in an online statement announcing the San Francisco launch back on December 14. While that mission may hold, Uber will have to find another path toward self-driving success on the west coast, perhaps with a permit next time.
Images via Uber