Bike Group, Business Owner Cite Uber Self-Driving Mishaps

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Gaffes and glitches continue to beset Uber’s tests of self-driving cars in San Francisco.

Already under fire from state and city lawmakers for not getting permits, the cars are now raising an outcry from bicyclists, who say they make illegal and unsafe right turns through bike lanes. And a business owner says he saw one of the cars, which appeared to be in self-driving mode, go through a red light a few weeks ago.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, was among a score of nonprofit leaders, elected officials and policymakers, who took test drives in the cars last week, two days before Uber launched a pilot with paying passengers on Dec. 14. The cars operate with a human in the driver’s seat who can take control.

“While the vehicle was in self-driving mode, it made an illegal right turn through a bike lane,” Wiedenmeier said. “I pointed this out to the test drivers, who seemed unaware that the turn was illegal.” The car did it again a few blocks later, he said. Wiedenmeier said he expressed his concerns to Uber personnel, who said they’d look into it right away.

Under California law, cars are supposed to merge as far right as practical before making right turns. Instead, Uber’s cars make turns called right hooks from the lane adjacent to the bike lane — increasing the chance of colliding with bicyclists.

Uber said it has instructed drivers of the semi-autonomous cars to take control for that type of turns. “We take safety very seriously,” the company said. “We’re aware of this and we’re working to address it.”

But Wiedenmeier, who has heard from others who witnessed the cars making right-hook turns, said that seems inadequate.

“I felt an ethical responsibility to alert people who bike in our city,” he said. “(Right-hook turns) are one of the most hazardous things bicyclists face.” He’s started a petition on his group’s website asking Uber to address the issue.

Several reports have surfaced of the retrofitted Volvo XC90s running red lights, which Uber attributed to human error.

However, Christopher Koff, owner of AK Subs at 8th and Harrison, recounted a red-light incident he witnessed in the early morning a few weeks ago, while Uber was testing the cars without passengers. He could see that the driver’s hands weren’t on the wheel, he said, meaning the car was likely in self-driving mode.

“I noticed one of the Uber cars (a Volvo headed westbound on Harrison) pull up at the red light on Harrison,” he said. “I stood there looking at it because it had all those bells and whistles on it. There were two guys in the car. The guy in the driver’s seat was looking at the guy in the passenger’s seat having a conversation” while the car was stopped.

“All of a sudden, the car just took off and went through the intersection while the light was still red,” Koff said. “A car coming down 8th Street had to slam on the brakes (to avoid a collision), and laid on his horn, coming to a screechy stop.”

Uber didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the incident.

Uber’s semi-autonomous cars have generated plenty of controversy in recent days. The company declined to get a required permit for testing autonomous vehicles, saying it is exempt because the cars must have a human driver to operate. The Department of Motor Vehicles, the Attorney General’s office and San Francisco City Hall have all demanded that Uber cease its tests until it gets the permit or face unspecified legal action.

“They’re rushing unsafe, untested technology onto the streets,” said John Simpson, privacy director of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group. “There is a procedure in place which is supposed to ensure responsible, safe testing, which requires permitting, and they’re completely ignoring that.”

Both Simpson and Wiedenmeier said they see the long-term promise of autonomous vehicles to improve safety, but meanwhile think Uber should comply with the law.

“Uber is using a public good, our streets and roads, to run their business, and as such they’re subject to the rules and regulations just like everybody else,” Wiedenmeier said.


Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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