The standoff between Uber and the California Department of Motor Vehicles over self-driving cars in San Francisco mercifully came to an end last Wednesday, with Uber taking the “L” and removing its cars from San Francisco streets. Now that Uber’s short-lived rebellion is over, spectators are left asking questions like: “What was that all about?”
In a year that government and tech butted heads on many issues and regulations, Uber v. DMV felt extremely unnecessary and petulant. The stake during this weeklong standoff was $150 for a state permit to driving self-driving cars. Uber can afford a trillion state permits, but instead, it went to the barricades, lecturing journalists about how one doesn’t need to wear a belt and suspenders when wearing a dress.
It’s clearly not an economic choice, but rather a philosophical and, more importantly, political calculation by Uber. Philosophically, the recent actions don’t stray far from Uber’s “bad boy” image and business approach. Without consulting either San Francisco or California, Uber put out its self-driving cars on Dec. 14 to embarrassing results. The cars at least twice ran red lights, which Uber blamed on its human drivers. Uber also acknowledged that its deployed self-driving cars do a poor job detecting bike lanes.
So what is Uber’s endgame here? Eager-eyed tech companies, from successes like Airbnb to failures like Theranos, like to go on the offensive by launching products knowing the governments and their outdated regulations will have to play catch-up. Uber might be resorting to the same trick, but they already made their big self-driving car splash four months ago in Pittsburgh. The San Francisco self-driving cars are the same as the ones across the country. Why the big hurry?
Maybe Uber is trying to make a splash of a different kind. Uber is hemorrhaging money, losing at least $800 million in the third quarter of 2016 and up to $2.8 billion in 2016 alone. Uber also took a huge loss earlier this year when it shut down an ambitious expansion into China, and it pays 59 percent of all rides through its investor subsidies.
As another tech columnist at Marketwatch notes — albeit vaguely — perhaps Uber is trying to flex its muscles to show investors the company’s still got that disruption spunk by ignoring The Man and deploying self-driving cars in its hometown.
Another reasonable theory is that this was Uber’s warning shot to California: Back off and let us roam the streets in peace. Uber’s head of advanced technologies, Anthony Levandowski, argued at his defiant news conference that Uber’s self-driving cars are no different than Tesla Autopilot, a self-driving capability currently allowed only when its cars are on the freeway. (Think a sentient cruise mode.) He argues, Tesla Autopilot did not require a permit, so why do we?
That point is comparing apples to oranges. But more importantly, it could have been raised in private in an attorney-only tete-a-tete.
“Is it trying to create facts on the ground to which law may eventually conform?” asks Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor at law at the University of South Carolina, in an op-ed for Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. “That posture is also antagonizing California’s DMV and Office of the Attorney General.”
Whatever the endgame was, Uber will need to seriously rethink its future moves. The past few weeks for Uber have been a disaster that only corroded San Francisco’s public trust in its self-driving cars. Self-driving cars, like it or not, will likely be a big player in the future, with Toyota, Ford and Google investing heavily in its respective projects.
This issue will not rest and may rear its head very soon. And when self-driving cars do return to San Francisco, will Uber finally play nice?
In brighter news, many more Silicon Valley companies announced publicly that they will not help the Trump administration in building a Muslim registry, should they be asked.
At first, it was just Twitter. Then, Facebook. Now, Apple, Google, Uber, IBM, Salesforce and Microsoft have made their pledges.
I’ve seen critiques online that this is just liberal Silicon Valley crying wolf. After all, every time a Muslim registry is mentioned, Trump’s supporters say Trump never explicitly said he wants to build a registry.
But even if it’s crying wolf, it does matter. It’s refreshing to hear Silicon Valley titans collectively stand up to advertised political values and side with its employees, more than 2,600 of whom signed a petition to never contribute to any registry construction. After all, the best-case scenario is no registry is proposed and all this is looked fondly as that one time Silicon Valley banded together in political symbolism.
Worst case scenario: A registry is proposed, and the industry took a stand to prevent historical mistakes, like that of IBM’s collaboration with the Nazis to streamline the Holocaust, repeating again. Never again, indeed.
The Nexus covers the intersection of technology, business and culture in San Francisco and beyond. Write to Seung at email@example.com.