California regulators Wednesday slammed the brakes on Uber’s use of self-driving cars on San Francisco’s streets, less than a day after the company rolled out the vehicles in The City.
And, the San Francisco Examiner has learned, Uber in the weeks before the launch gave exclusive and secret test-drives of the self-driving vehicles to California state officials, in what some said may be an attempt to curry favor with regulators.
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News of the regulatory tussle came just hours after multiple accounts surfaced of self-driving Uber vehicles running red lights in various San Francisco neighborhoods, which were first reported by the Examiner.
In one case, a Luxor Cab dashboard-camera obtained footage of a self-driving Uber car flying through a red light on Third Street near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Self-driving cars that break the law are in the domain of the San Francisco Police Department, which enforces California Vehicle Code. San Francisco Police Traffic Company Sgt. Will Murray said he was unaware Uber’s cars were already on the streets.
“I was unaware the cars have been released in the wild,” Murray said. “Isn’t that like the headless horsemen?”
Multiple sources confirmed the test-drives with state lawmakers, and one person with close knowledge of the test drive placed Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and ride-hail regulators — like officials at the California Public Utilities Commission — at the event that, the Examiner confirmed, was also attended by members of the state Assembly.
Newsom’s office confirmed he rode in one of the vehicles on Nov. 18.
“That would be a smart move on their part [because] wherever they were seeking approvals … any time you could have an appointed official or a celebrity saying, ‘My experience using your product is a good one,’ that’s a powerful statement,” former Mayor Willie Brown said.
The mayor’s press office said that while Mayor Ed Lee has been supportive of testing driverless cars, they learned about the Uber self-driving cars hitting the road only Tuesday, the same day the ride-hail giant reportedly informed state officials as well.
Lee’s primary concern is the safety of streets, particularly pedestrians and cyclists, according to his press office.
Uber said the company did not need to obtain permits to operate self-driving cars in California because it had personnel riding in the vehicles.
“The rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group. “For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”
Uber’s action is illegal, California DMV Deputy Director Brian G. Soublet wrote in a letter to Uber late Wednesday.
Soublet added that the ride-hail behemoth was required to obtain an autonomous vehicle testing permit before operating self-driving vehicles on city streets.
“If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action,” Soublet wrote, “including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief.”
Uber invited state officials including assemblymembers David Chiu and Phil Ting, to its test drive sessions on Nov. 18 and Monday — the latter just two days before the San Francisco launch.
Both Chiu and Ting, who represent San Francisco, authored tighter regulations to ensure California tour bus safety.
Ting confirmed he was in attendance.
“We drove around the corner and went three or four blocks. The technology is fascinating,” Ting told the Examiner.
Ting said the effort was vital for California to innovate technology, especially in light of competition from other states. However, he added, “We want to make sure these vehicles are entirely safe and have passed every hurdle with [the] DMV. They are charged with our safety.”
Ting said he would reach out to Uber to ensure they were seeking compliance with the DMV.
Judson True, Chiu’s chief of staff, confirmed Chiu’s attendance and emphasized Uber needs to comply with the law.
“We think self-driving cars are likely part of an exciting future,” True said, “but all companies in this space, including Uber, should work with California regulators on the safest path forward.”
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages taxis in The City, has for years lobbied state regulators to allow cities to have regulatory authority over ride-hails like Uber and Lyft.
Local regulators, SFMTA argued to the CPUC recently, are better equipped to manage traffic and other local concerns.
Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesperson, said, “We are willing to work with companies who want bring self-driving cars to San Francisco.”
In a statement to KPIX, Uber said, “This incident was due to human error” and added the self-driving vehicle was “not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers.”
Ting said riding in the self-driving car was like something out of the 1960s cartoon “The Jetsons,” and he was stunned to see the degree to which self-driving technology has progressed.
“I don’t have legislation drafted yet,” he said, “but if this technology is coming along, we had better set up with a framework sooner rather than later.”
S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Jonah Owen Lamb contributed to this report.