What the hell was Uber thinking with self-driving cars in San Francisco?


A self-driving mess.

Where even to begin with Uber this week? I guess we should just recap the whole sorry saga:

  • On Wednesday (Dec. 14), Uber put a handful of self-driving Volvos into service for riders in San Francisco. Uber did this without an autonomous vehicle testing permit, in open defiance of the California DMV.

  • That afternoon, a self-driving Uber was filmed running a red light. Uber blamed a human.

  • Also that afternoon, the California DMV asked Uber to halt self-driving car testing.

  • On Thursday, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition warned Uber’s autonomous cars were making dangerous “right hook turns” through bike lanes, the no. 1 cause of collisions between cars and cyclists.

  • On Friday, Uber held a press conference and refused to take its cars off the roads. 

  • Later on Friday, the attorney general demanded Uber “adhere to California law and immediately remove its ‘self-driving’ vehicles from the state’s roadways.”

All of which brings us to yesterday, when the Guardian turned the SF Bicycle Coalition post into this brutal story. The Guardian spoke to Chris Cassidy, a SFBC spokesman, who said the coalition had warned Uber about the right-hook problem ahead of its self-driving car launch and been told the company was working on it. Uber conveniently forgot to mention that its cars would hit the streets in two days’ time anyway. “The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets,” Cassidy says. Meanwhile, Uber told the Guardian that engineers were “continuing to work on the problem” and that, as a temporary fix, its safety drivers had been instructed to assume control when approaching rights turns on streets with bike lanes. You’ll recall, of course, that Uber blamed its earlier red-light run-through on one of its human drivers, so that must be very reassuring to San Francisco’s cyclists.

What was Uber thinking? The most popular explanation seems to be “this was tech hubris in its purest form.” Certainly, there was some of that going on, but Uber is also by now a seasoned challenger of regulation and I think it gets a little more credit. Actually, what happened in San Francisco was entirely unsurprising because it was straight out of the Otto playbook. Otto, the self-driving trucking startup that Uber acquired this summer, and its co-founder, Anthony Levandowski, pulled the same stunt in Nevada in May when they filmed a driverless truck trundling along a public highway. They did this without obtaining an autonomous vehicle testing permit and special red license plates from the Nevada DMV, which required evidence of 10,000 miles of self-driving operation and a $5 million bond. The Nevada DMV was furious. And then … nothing. To quote Backchannel, “Bizarrely, the autonomous driving regulations come with no penalties for breaking them.” In July, Otto applied to be Nevada’s first Autonomous Technology Certification Facility. It was approved at the end of September and now will self-certify that Uber and Otto autonomous vehicles comply with state safety regulations.

California is not Nevada and the situation seems unlikely to play out the same way. But if you’re Uber, why not try?

Your friend with a car.

Ok, that was long. Here is something fun! Lyft hired John Kahrs, an Academy Award-winning animator who worked on Frozen, the Incredibles, and Monsters, Inc., among others, to direct a short animated film about Lyft Line. It’s seven minutes long and … pretty good! Much better than those TV commercials the company unveiled in November. Anyway, enjoy.

Postmates is a technology company.

Postmates has been ordered to pay 2+ years of workers comp premiums to more than 3,000 couriers in Seattle, for a total of about $320,000. The decision came down from Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries, which is not sold on the deliverypeople being independent contractors, and feels “they should have been recorded as employees.” (Related: Postmates was also fined $75,000 by L&I for poor record keeping.) You’ll never guess what Postmates said:

“Postmates is a technology company,” wrote Douglas E. Smith, of law firm Littler Mendelson, in a response to the audit dated Nov. 28. “It employs code writers, marketers and technical staff. It is not a delivery service. It does not provide courier services in Washington (or anywhere else). It employs no couriers. No couriers work out of Postmates’ offices in Washington, and all courier services are ‘performed outside all of Postmates’ place of business.’ ”

Postmates general counsel Rob Rieders said the L&I decision was “based on an inaccurate review of the facts and a misinterpretation of applicable law.” The company has requested L&I reconsider. 

UPDATE: The longest Uber ride.

Last week we talked about Janis Rogers, the 64-year-old who drove a passenger nearly 400 miles from Williamsburg, Virginia to Brooklyn, New York. The eight-hour, $294.09 ride was thought to be the longest ever for Uber. But apparently not! According to a local Fox affiliate, Rogers had already been outdone by Kevin Jones, a 45-year-old Uber driver who on Oct. 9 took a woman from Omaha to Denver. That trip was also about eight hours but a much longer 550 miles, so I guess Jones was driving faster (also, not through New York City). It was also much more lucrative for Jones: the passenger paid $877.61 of which he took home $702.09. To voice the obvious question: Why didn’t she fly?!

Other stuff.

General Motors will build and test self-driving cars in Detroit. Gett CEO thinks humans will ultimately be banned from driving. Uber expands commuter program with WageWorks. Uber, Lyft blamed for traffic in San FranciscoUber Driver Shoots Robber Who Jumped Out of Van With Guns Drawn, Police Say. Travis Kalanick Starts India Tour With Cricket, Bikes. Travis Kalanick “will apply for Indian citizenship” if necessary. Hank Johnson calls out Airbnb on forced arbitration. McDonald’s tests delivery through UberEats. Postmates rolls out virtual gift cards. Airbnb increases funding round to $1 billion. Managed by Q seeks $40 million. Tripping.com raises $35 million. Careem becomes a unicorn. Turo expands to the UK. Amazon investigates Uber for shipping. Airbnb builds a flight-booking tool. Waymo (!) unveils self-driving minivans. Airbnb for yachts. Airbnb tax practices. Uber beaconYoubu Uber.