Uber self-driving cars hit the streets of San Francisco
SAN FRANCISCO | Uber is bringing a small number of self-driving cars to its ride-hailing service in San Francisco — a move likely to excite the city’s tech-savvy population and certain to antagonize California regulators.
The Wednesday launch in Uber’s hometown expands a public pilot program the company started in Pittsburgh in September. The testing lets everyday people experience the cars as Uber works to identify glitches before expanding the technology’s use in San Francisco and elsewhere.
California law, however, requires a test permit for self-driving prototype vehicles, and Uber does not have one. The company argues that the law doesn’t apply because its cars require a human backup.
But California regulators ordered Uber to stop its self-driving car service in San Francisco until it gets a state permit.
Hours after Uber had launched its service on Wednesday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter warning legal action if the company didn’t get the permit required for putting “autonomous vehicles” on public roads.
In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, DMV officials wrote that Uber “must cease” deploying the cars or face unspecified legal action.
Uber has a history of testing legal boundaries. Although the company has been around less than a decade, it has argued with authorities around the world about how much of its drivers’ histories should be covered in background checks and whether those drivers should be treated as contractors ineligible for employee benefits.
The streets of San Francisco Uber’s self-driving tests in San Francisco will begin with a “handful” of Volvo luxury SUVs — the company wouldn’t release an exact number — that have been tricked out with sensors so they can steer, accelerate and brake, and even decide to change lanes. The cars will have an Uber employee behind the wheel to take over should the technology fail. Users of the app may be matched with a self-driving car, but can opt out if they prefer a human driver. Self-driven rides cost the same as ordinary ones.
The cars will be put to the test in the congested streets of San Francisco. The city can be a daunting place to drive given its famously steep hills, frequent fog, street and cable cars, an active bicycle culture, and roads that are constantly being repaved, remarked and restricted for bike lanes and traffic management.
Uber believes its technology is ready to handle all this safely, though its executives concede the vehicles are nowhere near able to drive without a human ready to take control in dicey situations.
There was room for improvement during a Tuesday test drive attended by The Associated Press. The car was destined for a local pizza parlor, but didn’t pull directly in front of the restaurant, and instead stopped in the middle of the street. The cars may strike some riders as over-cautious, too. During the test drive, one idled in a traffic jam even though an adjacent lane was clear, prompting the human driver to make the move himself.
Uber’s fleet of Volvo XC90s won’t be the first self-driving cars on San Francisco streets — several other companies visit regularly with test prototypes, though none offers public rides.
Once testing is complete, the ultimate vision is to sell to the public technology which supporters argue will save thousands of lives because it doesn’t drink, text, fall asleep or take dangerous risks.
Devin Greene sits in one of a number of Uber driverless cars that the company brought to San Francisco this week as part of its public pilot program expansion.