For a state that prides itself on encouraging innovation, the news landed like a lump of Christmas-time coal: Uber pulls self-driving cars off California roads, the various headlines read.
Uber, in a pique over regulations it claimed were unfair, loaded its 16 semi-autonomous Volvos onto trucks in San Francisco in December and transported them to Arizona and the welcoming arms of Gov. Doug Ducey.
“While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses,” Ducey declared.
Uber, which cultivates an edgy image, may have thought it had pulled a slick move. Hardly. Uber recently returned to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to register a half-dozen self-driving Fords. Uber intends to use the cars to map San Francisco, as a step toward using the experimental technology in the city.
And although Uber’s Volvos remain in Arizona, the company still is mapping the area, and has not used semi-autonomous vehicles to pick up customers, an Uber spokeswoman said. She also said Uber never intended to abandon California.
Whatever the reason for the show, perhaps the San Francisco-based company has concluded it isn’t wise to alienate customers in a market of 39 million people, or annoy regulators and lawmakers. Sen. Jerry Hill, a Peninsula Democrat, responded by introducing legislation, SB 145, he hopes will streamline regulations, but added that Uber was “sticking a stick” in California’s eye needlessly. He pointed out that many other companies comply.
Two weeks ago, the DMV released 2016 data detailing the experiences of 11 companies, Google, General Motors and Tesla among them, which have permits to operate semi-autonomous cars on California roads. Thanks to California’s wise public disclosure requirements, the reports show how quickly the technology is progressing.
“Google and General Motors are leading the class with cars capable of driving hundreds of miles at a stretch without trouble. But even those who don’t make the honor roll show impressive gains,” Wired reported.
In 2016, Google’s Waymo cars operated 636,868 miles in California, an increase of 50 percent from 2015. Instances in which drivers needed to intervene decreased to 124, from 341 in 2015.
In coming weeks, the DMV will issue proposed rules detailing what companies will need to do to deploy fully autonomous vehicles. Other states may welcome fully autonomous vehicles with minimal restriction. And certain companies may prefer to operate unfettered by nettlesome regulations.
But while innovation is important to California’s future, there must be standards. Autonomous vehicles come with both high hopes and worries. We worry that jobs will disappear, and cabbies and delivery drivers will go the way of buggy operators. We hope accidents and congestion fade into history. Because all Californians have a stake in the outcome, disclosure of any accidents must remain a part of the new regulations. Through it all, public safety must be paramount.