Editorials

Uber should tap brakes as it rushes to self-driving future

Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving program, speaks about the company’s driverless car in San Francisco. The ride-hailing company is balking at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ insistence that it meet permitting requirements by paying a $150 fee and filling out a four-page application.
Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s self-driving program, speaks about the company’s driverless car in San Francisco. The ride-hailing company is balking at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ insistence that it meet permitting requirements by paying a $150 fee and filling out a four-page application. The Associated Press

Mayor Darrell Steinberg declared last week that he wants Sacramento to be California’s hub for testing self-driving vehicles.

And in a call with journalists last week, an Uber executive said he’d be happy to consider taking Steinberg up on the offer to test the company’s autonomous vehicles on this city’s streets, at some point.

“We love Sacramento; it’s great,” Anthony Levandowski, of San Francisco-based Uber, said on the call. “We’re happy to be welcome there. We will definitely run it by our team and think about going there as soon as we can.”

It’s no surprise that Uber is a pioneer of self-driving technology. In its seven-year life, Uber has disrupted transportation in many ways, most of them good for people who need rides, and not good for the taxi business. We hope the company decides to test its cars in Sacramento, once it obtains the proper permits from the state of California.

Unfortunately, the ride-sharing company has bridled at the Department of Motor Vehicles’ insistence that it comply with rather basic requirements by paying a $150 fee and filling out a four-page application. Uber executives and state officials are scheduled to meet Wednesday in an effort to resolve the matter, without resorting to litigation.

Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, Google, Ford and 16 other companies have complied with a 2012 California law – supported by tech companies – by applying for and receiving Department of Motor Vehicles permits to test roughly 130 self-driving cars on California roads.

By law, each vehicle must have a driver at the wheel in case the sensors fail and the car requires a human’s touch. Companies also must attest that drivers have clean driving records, and that the cars have proper insurance, hardly onerous requirements.

DMV officials have threatened to sue to enjoin Uber from operating in San Francisco without a permit. It shouldn’t have to come to that. But if Uber is obstinate, the state will have little choice.

Levandowski explained the decision to not seek a permit by saying Uber “cannot in good conscience sign up for regulation for something we are not doing.” Uber’s cars employ technology similar to that which is used in the cars Tesla sells to its customers, he said.

All that may be true. Or perhaps the company believes it would lose competitive advantage by complying with the states’ perfectly reasonable requirements that companies testing the technology publicly disclose any accidents, or incidents in which drivers must take the wheel.

The time will come – and not in the too-distant future – when self-driving cars will be the norm. In concert with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the DMV is developing regulations due in 2017 that would permit the testing of fully autonomous, driverless cars.

Uber likely will be in the forefront of this experiment. As The Economist wrote in September, Uber aspires to use self-driving vehicles “to make ride-hailing so cheap and convenient that people forgo car ownership altogether.”

Such a future could bring benefits. Human error is the cause of most traffic deaths. Autonomous cars wouldn’t drive drunk and, if the technology works, wouldn’t run red lights or speed. Driverless cars could reduce space wasted on parking lots, and ease congestion. There will be downsides. Fleets of autonomous cars and delivery vehicles will displace workers who drive to make their living.

Change is inevitable, as Uber and other tech companies make clear with each passing day. California should not impose undue regulations or stifle innovation. But sensors and robotics can go on the blink. The state is right to insist that Uber, like 20 other tech and auto companies, comply with basic permitting and reporting requirements. They are, after all, in the interest of public safety, something Uber ought to embrace.

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