California has forced Uber to remove its self-driving vehicles from the road, canceling the company’s controversial pilot program in San Francisco after a week of embarrassing report of traffic violations and repeated legal threat from state officials.
The department of motor vehicles (DMV) announced late on Wednesday that it had revoked the registration of 16 autonomous Uber cars, which the corporation deployed without proper permits last week and which were caught on numerous occasions running red lights.
Uber, which had previously declared that its rejection of government regulations was an “important issue of principles”, confirmed that it has stopped its pilot in a statement, adding: “We’re now 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.”
DMV officials and the state attorney attorney general, Kamala Harris, have noted that Uber must get a testing permit for its Volvo XC90s, which are navigated by a computer system but have a driver in the front seat who can intervene when needed.
“It was determined that the registrations were improperly issued for these vehicles because they were not properly marked as test vehicles,” the DMV said in a statement. “Concurrently, the department invited Uber to seek a permit so their vehicles can operate legally in California
The removal of the cars is a major blow to Uber in its home town and a sign that California will not allow the company to skirt regulations – a tactic that has been a central components of the corporation’s rapid growth.
The company officially launched a pilot program accessible to riders last week, claiming that it did not need self-driving permits since the cars have humans inside monitoring. Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s advanced technology group, also justified the company’s unpermitted vehicles by claiming that they have “state-of-the-art” technology and “core safety capabilities”.
But within hours of the formal pilot program’s start, a video emerged of one of the vehicles running a red light in downtown San Francisco as a pedestrian began to cross the street. Reports of similar errors quickly spread on social media, and Uber blamed the mistakes on “human error”, saying the self-driving technology was not at fault and that they would be suspending drivers.
That defense earned widespread criticism from transportation experts and safety advocates, who argued that Uber should take responsibility for the actions of its cars and should collaborate with regulators instead of brazenly defying them.
Uber also admitted to the Guardian this week that the self-driving technology had a “problem” with bike lanes, raising concerns about serious safety risks in a city where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day.
The DMV has repeatedly pointed out that 20 manufacturers have gone through proper protocols and obtained permits for self-driving technology.
“California’s testing regulations for autonomous vehicles strike a balance between protecting public safety and embracing innovation,” the statement said. “Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else.”
The DMV statement also said it could take less than 72 hours for Uber to get its permits after completing an application: “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”
Some have suggested that Uber has aggressively tried to avoid permits so that it does not have to face the public scrutiny of a regulatory process.
Companies with permits are required to disclose crashes to the government and submit annual “disengagement reports”, which outline situations when a human operator intervened, sometimes due to technology failures.
San Francisco’s mayor, Ed Lee, said he supported the removal of the cars in a statement: “I have always been a strong supporter of innovation and autonomous vehicle development and testing, but only under conditions that put human, bicyclist and pedestrian safety first.”
John M Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group that has staunchly opposed the pilot program, praised the “DMV’s decisive action”, but said he still had doubts about Uber’s cars and practices.
“Given Uber’s safety record over the last two days,” he said, “where they’ve been blasting through red lights and threatening cyclists’ safety, we have fundamental questions about whether the robot cars are even ready to be tested on public highways.”