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.

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