Uber faces bumpy autonomous car ride in California | Crain's

Uber faces bumpy autonomous car ride in California

  • California is a sweet spot for future autonomous ridesharing businesses, according to Susan Shaheen, co-director of Transportation Sustainability Research Center at University of California Berkeley. | Photo by Jim Watkins.

    California is a sweet spot for future autonomous ridesharing businesses, according to Susan Shaheen, co-director of Transportation Sustainability Research Center at University of California Berkeley. | Photo by Jim Watkins.

  • In late December last year, the California DMV slammed the breaks on Uber’s self-driving service in San Francisco. | Photo courtesy of Uber.

    In late December last year, the California DMV slammed the breaks on Uber’s self-driving service in San Francisco. | Photo courtesy of Uber.

  • Even with the setbacks Uber promises to bring back autonomous rideshares to the area at some point. | Photo courtesy of Uber.

    Even with the setbacks Uber promises to bring back autonomous rideshares to the area at some point. | Photo courtesy of Uber.

Unhappy human drivers. Nightmarish logistics of state legislation. Dashcam videos revealing crucial mistakes. In addition to these roadblocks, Uber faces another bump on the road to self-driving cars in California: bike lanes.
 
In late December last year, the California DMV slammed the breaks on Uber’s self-driving service in San Francisco within the first week of launch by revoking the registrations of the ridesharing startup’s autonomous vehicles.
 
Although Uber’s self-driving cars in Pittsburgh cruised along without a major hitch, the vehicles in the California trial run were ripe with problems such as not carrying proper autonomous vehicle testing permits and running a red light.
 
Uber attributed these issues to a simple misunderstanding of state legislation (the company argued its cars aren’t completely autonomous because they operate with a human driver and therefore don't need a permit) and human error (Uber said a human driver was at fault for running through the red light) — both issues not inherently due to vehicular problems.
 
 
Trouble in the turns
 
According to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, the cars showcased a programming error that caused them to invade bike lanes in unsafe right-hook turns without warnings. During an exclusive test drive just weeks before the Dec. 14 launch, the SF Bicycle Coalition’s executive director Brian Wiedenmeier reportedly witnessed an Uber car make an illegal right-hook turn twice.
 
Such a maneuver could be a big issue for Uber’s pilot program: according to the California Vehicle Code, a right-turning car must merge into the bike lane about 50 to 200 feet before making a turn at the intersection. As it often happens in accidents involving cars and bicycles, turning across lanes can lead to dangerous collisions as the car swerves into a bicyclist.
 
The SF Bicycle Coalition had in fact consulted Uber on the same exact issue in an educational video for Uber drivers released in September of last year.
 
“[Wiedenmeier] told Uber's engineering and policy staff about those dangers and was informed that fixes were in the works,” said San Francisco Bicycle Coalition communications director Chris Cassidy.
 
What Cassidy and the bicycle community did not expect, however, was for Uber to fire up the pilot program just two days after the test-drives — without fixing the problem.
 
“We shared our concerns and our experiences with the public,” Cassidy said.
 
The bicycle advocacy group urged supporters to sign a petition to tell Uber to address the illegal turning behavior immediately.
 
“It was public fury at being treated like guinea pigs by Uber that really led to city and state officials ordering an end to experiments not ready for public streets,” Cassidy said.
 
This isn’t Uber’s first conflict with the SF Bicycle Coalition and matters concerning protected bike lanes. In June of 2015, Uber began a petition opposing the organization’s Safer Market Street project aimed at restricting turns onto Market Street, a notoriously accident-prone area that contains four of the top 20 intersections for bicycle injury collisions.
 
Despite Uber’s protest, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency unanimously approved the Safer Market Street plan and implemented turn restrictions for the safety of bicyclists.
 
According to a spokesperson at Uber: "We're working on a software fix for right hooks which has already been fixed operationally." Meaning that all Uber vehicle operators had been instructed to take over the vehicles for right-hook turns. "This instruction was in place before our launch in San Francisco and is part of our vehicle operator training."
 
Moving forward
 
Now, as Uber steers its self-driving program to a new test site in Arizona, the future of autonomous ridesharing in California remains uncertain.
 
However, this week the company did send out five of the futuristic-looking Ford Fusions decked out with city mapping devices onto San Francisco roads, according to SFGate.
 
“These cars are being used for Uber’s mapping purposes only," said an Uber spokesperson. "They are being driven manually at all times and their self-driving systems are disabled."
 
But with companies like Tesla working on a fully automated rideshare service in direct competition with the likes of Uber and Lyft, it would be in Uber’s best interest to address these issues sooner rather than later. 
 
California is a sweet spot for future autonomous ridesharing businesses because it’s the home ground for cutting-edge innovation in IT and vehicle automation, according to Susan Shaheen, co-director of Transportation Sustainability Research Center at University of California Berkeley.
 
“Furthermore, it is home to an early adopter population that loves to experiment with new products and services,” Shaheen said.
 
Shaheen added that since San Francisco is home to many shared mobility providers that have the ability to expose thousands of travelers to automated vehicle technology through their service, California’s attitude toward self-driving vehicles is all the more important.
 
“Applying for a permit and willingness to share data as part of the permitting process would likely help to move the discussion forward in California,” Shaheen said.
 
In the Bay Area where approximately 82,000 bike trips are taken every day, bicyclists’ safety is an important issue that Uber must address in order to win over its staunch detractors. The number of bicyclists on the road is rising year by year: according to the Annual Bicycle Count Report by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the bike counter located on Market Street logged more than 1 million trips in 2015 — a 25 percent increase over the 2014 total.
 
Even with Uber’s shortcomings during the trial runs, self-driving vehicles on the road doesn’t necessarily spell doom and gloom for bicyclists and pedestrians, according to Cassidy.
 
“It's really important to recognize that autonomous vehicle technology offers great potential to improve the safety of city streets.”
 
In a September press release, the White House laid out the potential benefits of safely deployed automated vehicles, highlighting safety, mobility, productivity and sustainability. Former President Barack Obama wrote an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette painting a less problematic future of self-driving cars with a simple slogan: “Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads.”
 
So to prepare for the inevitable future California roads populated with self-driving cars, SF Bicycle Coalition partnered with San Francisco’s Vision Zero Coalition, a national road safety advocate, to send a written letter to California legislators with recommendations for how to prioritize the safety of people walking and biking in pending updates to autonomous vehicle regulations.
 
It may be a while before the ridesharing giant makes a comeback to the Golden State, but California is certainly not against autonomous cars — as of December 2016, the DMV issued Autonomous Vehicle Testing Permits to 20 companies including Volkswagen, Google and Tesla.
 
 
January 23, 2017 - 12:36pm