Uber has ended its brief driverless car experiment in San Francisco — though not before trying to pull off a bit of corporate gymnastics.
Earlier this month, Uber announced it had brought "self-driving" cars to its hometown, with much fanfare. Two days later, however, Uber was clarifying that the vehicles aren't really as "self-driving" as the name suggested. In fact, they require a human operator.
The clarification came after Uber refused to comply with California state regulations that require a special permit for companies testing self-driving technology.
The company sent out a press release on Dec.14 announcing its self-driving cars would be coming to California. "We’re incredibly excited to work with Volvo to pair our state-of-the-art self-driving technology with Volvo’s outstanding vehicle development and core safety capabilities," it said.
But not so fast. One day prior, the California Department of Motor Vehicles put out a statement that "twenty manufacturers" had obtained permits to test their self-driving technology in accordance with the 2-year-old regulation. Naturally, the DMV expected Uber to do the same.
When the state DMV didn't back off, Uber pivoted slightly, clarifying that its "self-driving" technology wasn't quite as "self-driving" as those who hadn't followed it closely might think. Here's the company's press release from Dec. 16:
"From a technology perspective, self-driving Ubers operate in the same way as vehicles equipped with advanced driver assist technologies, for example Tesla auto-pilot and other OEM's traffic jam assist. This type of technology is commonplace on thousands of cars driving in the Bay Area today, without any DMV permit at all."
Fair enough, in that "self-driving" can refer to a range of technologies where a car is able to control some aspects of driving, but cannot fully drive itself without any human assistance. Nevertheless, the shift in company language was stark. Before the DMV kerfuffle, Uber said the cars were "self-driving" — but now they're not that self-driving. Uber referred to its technology as "state-of-the-art," but two days later it's also "commonplace on thousands of cars."
Of course, as an Uber spokesperson pointed out to Mashable, technology can both be commonplace and state-of-the-art. Alas, the state of California didn't buy it.
The DMV pulled the cars' registrations on Dec. 21, after Uber refused to apply for the testing permits. "Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted," the DMV said in an emailed statement. "The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible."
Instead, Uber took its toys and went to Arizona.
According to the spokesperson, the company just didn't agree that the technology required a permit.
Of course, Uber isn't exactly known for its public-facing consistency. Uber has called drivers "the engine of our business," but its basic business mechanics imply that it has never wanted much to do with them. The company doesn't even want to them to be employees, even though multiple legal rulings have said Uber drivers are more than just contractors.
Now it's more corporate waffling: Uber wanted to sell San Francisco passengers on its "state-of-the-art self-driving" cars — but once a state agency cried foul, the company changed its position on whether the cars were really all that innovative or driverless. And when one such vehicle was caught on video running a red light in San Francisco, the company was quick to blame the driver, not the technology.
Uber is an aggressive company. Instead of cultivating a team to construct its self-driving technology, it hired Carnegie Mellon University's robotics researchers and set up shop just down the road in Pittsburgh. The company was in 60 countries by the time it was 6 years old. With its rapid growth, however, comes a rapid accumulation of problems: Uber has been involved in dozens of lawsuits with different regulatory bodies in various nations. No one quite knows how to treat a company that is in one sense "just" an app, but is also a force for the massive disruption of transportation infrastructure.
Uber's impatience makes some sense: it's building what it believes to be the future, and nothing is more frustrating to those with a clear vision than others who don't share it. But in its push to move forward at breakneck speed, Uber appears to view most everything else — workers, laws, regulatory bodies — as mere obstacles to be pushed out of the way.