Intense fight with the state, ignited after cars were caught running red lights, exposed illegal and unethical tactics the company has used for years, critics say
Uber has launched an aggressive battle with California over its controversial self-driving cars, with regulators and consumer advocates accusing the corporation of flagrantly violating the law, endangering public safety and mistreating drivers.
The intense fight with the state – which ignited hours after numerous self-driving cars were caught running red lights in Uber’s home town – has exposed what critics say are the unethical and illegal tactics that the company has repeatedly used to grow its business.
The ride-sharing company, which launched semi-autonomous vehicles in San Francisco without permits this week, was ordered by the California department of motor vehicles (DMV) to immediately remove the cars from the road or face legal action.
But Uber, which has not publicly responded to the state’s demands, blamed the traffic light violations on “human error” and suspended the drivers who were monitoring the cars. This bold deflection of blame further highlights the corporation’s refusal to take responsibility for potential faults in its technology and raises questions about the dangers of prematurely rolling out self-driving vehicles.
“How many people are they going to kill before they understand they’re not doing the right thing?” said John M Simpson, privacy project director with Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit that has called for Uber to face consequences for side-stepping regulations. “If you’re going to use public highways as your own private laboratory, you’ve got an obligation to follow the rules.”
Uber’s open defiance of California regulators marks the latest case of a “sharing economy” corporation ignoring government under the guise of “disruption” and “innovation”. Uber has long claimed that it is a technology “platform” and not a transportation company and thus does not have to classify its drivers as employees or follow traditional taxicab regulations.
That strategy has resulted in more than 70 lawsuits in federal courts and hefty settlements, along with claims from opponents that the company is abusing workers’ rights and failing to ensure the safety of riders.
The San Francisco self-driving car scandal centers on Uber’s Volvo XC90s, which can navigate on their own while licensed drivers sit at the wheel and take control when necessary. The company first piloted semi-autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh in August.
In Pennsylvania, some drivers responded to the program with shock and concern and wondered how quickly they could lose their jobs to full automation.
The abrupt rollout in San Francisco and subsequent suspensions has led some California drivers to question whether Uber will toss them aside when the technology malfunctions or drivers aren’t properly trained and make a mistake.
“Uber itself is a very unethical company,” said Travis Taborek, a 26-year-old Bay Area resident, who drives full time for Uber and its competitor, Lyft. “If you launch technology like this on the scale of a city, then you need to go through proper channels. That’s how people are protected.”
In the long term, he added, “I am concerned self-driving cars are going to put a lot of people out of work.”
One San Francisco Uber driver, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, followed a self-driving car for about 15 minutes on Wednesday and filmed its movements. The footage shows multiple minor violations or potentially dangerous moves, such as failing to fully brake at a stop sign or cutting off a bus.
“I’d expect better behavior from a company with such clout in the transportation industry,” he said.
Uber has argued that it does not need permits since its cars aren’t fully autonomous, though the DMV noted that 20 companies have followed proper procedures and were approved to test self-driving vehicles in California.
Uber did not respond to repeated inquiries about the state’s order and lawsuit threat. In a statement to the Guardian, a spokesperson claimed that two cars running red lights were not part of the pilot and weren’t carrying customers.
“These incidents were due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers.” A spokesperson also claimed the cars require “human monitoring and intervention in many conditions, including bad weather”.
Experts note that Uber has an obvious financial interest in a system with minimal regulations. By ignoring California regulators, the corporation is attempting to preemptively create a framework in which self-driving cars are treated similarly to traditional vehicles, said Arun Sundararajan, a New York University business professor and expert on the sharing economy.
“The act of asking for permission is sort of a tacit admission that this needs to be regulated,” he said. “They are playing a long game here … They’re trying to define what the regulatory space is going to look like.”
Michael Gumora, a longtime San Francisco Uber driver who runs a website called RideshareReport.com, said it was a public relations ploy to announce suspensions and say the drivers erred when the automation system clearly didn’t work properly.
“It’s a human error, but the vehicle and the technology didn’t compensate,” he said. “The technology itself wasn’t able to avoid running the red light.”
Taborek said publicly admonishing the operators was another example of Uber mistreating drivers. “I would take anything Uber says with massive grains of salt … I’d be willing to bet good money that the technology is at fault.”
Uber’s response is reminiscent of statements from Tesla earlier this year after a driver using its “autopilot” technology died in a crash. The corporation denied responsibility and defended its technology even though the car’s system failed to detect a truck in front of it.
“You put unsafe vehicles on the road and then you blame a human,” said Simpson, who argued that San Francisco police should respond to Uber’s rogue operations by impounding the vehicles operating without a permit.
Consumer Watchdog also called for criminal charges against Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick for violating DMV requirements.
“This is essentially driving without a license,” Simpson said. “It’s really unconscionable.”