Uber’s “self-driving” cars are not considered autonomous vehicles under the California Vehicle Code. (Courtesy photo)

Uber’s autonomous vehicles could save lives

Last Wednesday, Uber announced that residents of San Francisco could call rides in autonomous vehicles. In response, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a cease-and-desist letter to Uber saying that their testing of autonomous vehicles was illegal. This display of the “precautionary principle,” though well-intentioned, hurts entrepreneurship. To foster innovation and growth of self-driving vehicles, California should allow Uber to test its cars and rely on the legal system to provide redress for any harms.

In their letter to Uber, the California DMV said:

“California Vehicle Code Section 38750 and California Code of Regulations Article 3.7 clearly establish that an autonomous vehicle may be tested on public roads only if the vehicle manufacturer, including anyone that installs autonomous technology on a vehicle, has obtained a permit to test such vehicles from the DMV.”

However, Uber’s vehicles are not considered autonomous vehicles under the laws referenced in the letter. California Vehicle Code Section 38750 defines an autonomous vehicle as “any vehicle equipped with autonomous technology that has been integrated into that vehicle.” And it defines autonomous technology as “technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” The code also defines an operator as “the person who is seated in the driver’s seat.”

Under these definitions, the cars that Uber is testing are not autonomous vehicles. The autonomous technology the cars use does not have the capacity to drive the vehicle without the person sitting in the front seat. The self-driving cars in San Francisco have two humans in the front seats monitoring the car. One operator hovers over the steering wheel, ready to take control if something goes wrong. The other, an engineer, sits in the passenger’s seat to take notes on the vehicle’s performance.

It is problematic that California requires companies like Uber to obtain permission to test their vehicles. This requirement restricts the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and make better products for consumers. Further, the company already offers autonomous vehicles to citizens of Pittsburgh. The results have been positive. The cars have been involved in only a couple incidents including a fender-bender and a major accident. But these two collisions were caused by another driver running into the back of Uber’s vehicle and another driver running a red light. These driver-related errors only emphasize the point that self-driving technology could save lives if we allow it to flourish.

While these laws pursue goals of safety and public trust, there are other ways to achieve them without restricting innovation. The tort system is a great way to achieve these goals. The courts offer those who can demonstrate harms to seek retribution. They also serve as a deterrent to companies to do extensive testing and ensure their products are safe.

California should allow Uber to offer their autonomous vehicles unimpeded. If they cause people harm, then the legal system should hold them accountable. Having patience could be the difference between incredible new technology and another abandoned project.

Jordan Reimschisel is an advocate for Young Voices.

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