Uber Blames Self-Driving Car Traffic Offenses on Humans
By Sam Levin. Updated December 15, 2016.
California regulators ordered Uber to remove its self-driving vehicles from the road on the same day that the company’s vehicles were caught running red lights -- violations the company immediately blamed on “human error.”
“It is essential that Uber takes appropriate measures to ensure safety of the public,” the California department of motor vehicles (DMV) wrote to Uber on Wednesday after it defied government officials and began piloting the cars in San Francisco without permits. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”
An Uber spokesperson said two red-light violations were due to mistakes by the people required to sit behind the steering wheel and said the company has suspended the drivers.
A video posted by Charles Rotter, an operations manager at Luxor, a traditional cab company, shows one of Uber’s computer-controlled cars plowing through a pedestrian crosswalk in downtown about four seconds after the light turned red. Elsewhere, a photo from a San Francisco writer showed one of the Uber vehicles entering an intersection against a red light.
“People could die,” Rotter said in an interview later. “This is obviously not ready for primetime.”
The traffic violations and threat of legal action are a significant blow to Uber in its home town, where the California department of motor vehicles has said that Uber requires permits to test the technology on its roads.
Despite that stated mandate from a government agency, Uber declared in a blog post that it did not believe it needed a “testing permit” to launch self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, arguing that the rules don’t apply since the cars have people in them monitoring movements.
“Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s advanced technology group. His post announcing the Wednesday launch noted the Volvo XC90s’ “core safety capabilities”.
In his letter to Levandowski, the DMV’s deputy director Brian Soublet noted that 20 companies have already been approved to test self-driving vehicles in California.
“They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he said, adding, “This technology holds the promise of true safety benefits on our roadways, but must be tested responsibly.”
The self-driving vehicles of the popular car-sharing company were first unveiled in Pittsburgh in September. The vehicles have technology that allows them to navigate on their own, though licensed drivers sit behind the wheel and can take control as necessary.
Annie Gaus, a San Francisco writer and producer, said she was riding to work on Wednesday in a Lyft, Uber’s biggest competitor, when she saw one of the Uber self-driving vehicles nearly crash into her.
Just passed a 'self-driving' Uber that lurched into the intersection on Van Ness, on a red, nearly hitting my Lyft. -- Annie Gaus (@AnnieGaus) December 14, 2016
She tweeted a photo of the car in the intersection after it ran the red light.
“The Uber car sort of jutted out into the intersection,” she told the Guardian by phone, noting that she and her Lyft driver were both taken aback. “It was close enough that we were both kind of like, ‘Woah.’ It’s close enough that you kind of react and are sort of rattled.”
Gaus, who has written about technology and has contributed to the Guardian, said the red-light violations on day one of the pilot seem to highlight how the implementation of the technology in a place like San Francisco may be premature.
“I don’t think anybody has a good understanding of how this works in a city context.”
An Uber spokesperson said both cars running red lights were not part of the pilot and weren’t carrying customers.
“These incidents were due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” the statement said. “The drivers involved have been suspended while we continue to investigate.”
The company did not immediately respond to questions about the state’s order to remove the cars from the road.
It’s unclear how law enforcement may address these kinds of violations.
Asked how the San Francisco police department would respond to a self-driving Uber running a red-light, officer Giselle Talkoff said: “I don’t even know. I guess we could pull them over.”
After the Guardian sent Talkoff footage of the Uber violation, first reported by the San Francisco Examiner, she said the police were not investigating the specific incident at this time. But she noted officers would follow up in cases in which there was an injury or if they witnessed a violation in person -- though she said she wasn’t sure if the “secondary driver” or the company would be held accountable.
“There was a person that was walking very closely,” she said of the footage, pointing out that a pedestrian was entering the street when the Uber car ran the red.
Talkoff further noted that there aren’t state or federal laws governing self-driving cars.
“First comes technology, then comes policy. It’s going to be a matter of setting some precedents,” she said, adding, “The companies that are putting these vehicles on the road should have their vehicles operate with due regard to the rules of the road.”
A sergeant with the police traffic division said his department was not even aware that Uber had started using autonomous cars in San Francisco.
Rotter argued that the technology company should be held responsible for sending the vehicles out on the road despite government objections.
“What this company has done is start operating illegally and push for permission later.”