Uber proudly released a fleet of eleven driverless Volvos onto the streets of San Francisco Wednesday morning and one or two immediately started running amok. One person tweeted about seeing a self-driving vehicle nearly hitting another car, while another posted a video showing an autonomous tech-equipped XC90 breezing through a red light and active pedestrian cross-walk.
Before the end of the program’s first day, people were clamoring for Uber to explain the incidents and the California Department of Motor Vehicles had sent the ride-hailing company a cease and desist letter for operating without a permit.
Initially reported by the San Francisco Examiner, the video — taken from a Luxor taxicab dash-cam — shows the autonomous Uber ignoring a red signal around 10:37 yesterday morning. Later that same morning, freelance writer and producer Annie Gaus tweeted that she, “Just passed a ‘self-driving’ Uber that lurched into the intersection on Van Ness [Avenue], on a red, nearly hitting my Lyft.”
Speaking with the Examiner, Gaus explained the Uber vehicle darted out across Union Street on a red light, and nearly hit the Lyft car she was riding in. “It was close enough that both myself and the driver reacted and were like, ‘Shit,’” she said. “It stopped suddenly and stayed like that, as you see in the [tweeted] photo.”
Uber released an official statement that claims the incident in the video was caused by human error and not the technology. “This incident was due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers. This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate.”
That’s not reassuring, considering it really looks like one of the Volvo SUVs from the pilot, and the best case scenario is that the company has had trouble hiring competent motorists. Uber employees are required to keep their hands on the self-driving vehicle’s controls at all times, so even a technical snafu should be solved by operator intervention. However, that hasn’t kept Uber test vehicles in the Pittsburgh trials from having mishaps. In September, reports surfaced of self-driving Ford Fusions involved in wrong-way driving and a minor fender-bender.
Uber has been ordered by state regulators to immediately stop using self-driving cars in California. It may be allowed to return to public testing after it secures the necessary state permit that allows companies to operate autonomous vehicles on public roads. The California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a statement stating that Uber was expected to secure such a permit, but Uber maintained that it was unnecessary because its vehicles are fully self-driving — requiring them to have a driver on board at all times.
“If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, the DMV will initiate legal action,” wrote DMV attorney Brian Soublet in a letter addressed to Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber’s autonomous car programs.
As of now, roughly twenty companies have received the DMV permits needed to test on California roads, including Ford, Google, and Tesla.