Innovation

Roadblock: Uber's driverless fleet stops San Francisco experiment

Uber's attempt to expand its driverless fleet to the Bay Area, called 'illegal' by the DMV, failed after state regulators threatened to revoke registrations.

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Image: CNET


On Wednesday, a week after Uber launched its driverless fleet in San Francisco, the ride-sharing giant was forced to pull its cars off the road.

News that Uber would unveil 16 driverless Volvo SUVs—its second driverless fleet available to the public, after Pittsburgh—was met with swift action by state regulators. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the California DMV called the move "illegal," and threatened to sue. Although Uber continued to run the fleet after the message from regulators, a stronger threat that it would lose registrations forced the company to halt its experiment.

In a statement, Uber said it is "looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules."

The California project was not the only place the public could try out a driverless vehicle—in August, Singapore's driverless taxis were the first to be unveiled in a public capacity. And Uber's Pittsburgh fleet entered the roads in September.

The difference in this case? California law requires a permit for these vehicles—20 companies currently possess it—which Uber declined to apply for. Uber's argument was that, since its vehicles were operated by human drivers, it did not need to comply with the rule. Another possible advantage of not holding a permit is that Uber would not be forced to report accidents.

The move immediately elicited concerns from autonomous driving experts. Bryant Walker Smith, associate professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert in the legal implications of autonomous driving, wondered how the move fit into Uber's "long game."

Particularly, he said, the move seemed to be at odds with the company's broader mission to build trust in the systems and developers of autonomous vehicles.

But Uber's decision wasn't entirely unexpected. The company has "a history of pushing the boundaries, not wanting to wait for permission because it slows down innovation," Michael Ramsey, an autonomous vehicle expert at Gartner, told TechRepublic.

"This was the likely outcome. Perhaps Uber wanted to make a statement, and it made it," said Ramsey. "There will be plenty of cities that will be happy to have them test out their cars."

Jeffrey Miller, Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of engineering at the University of Southern California, said there's "no reason" Uber shouldn't apply for a driverless permit in California. "They are trying to market their vehicles as driverless but tell California that they are not," he said.

"The bottom line is that, even with an operator in the vehicle, the Uber vehicles can operate autonomously, so they should have to abide by the same driverless regulations."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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