Why you don’t sign a waiver before taking a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh

At least a few months back, ‘friends and family’ did. What changed?

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Uber's fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions from 2016

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

For nearly three weeks, Pittsburghers — who opted into Uber’s pilot — have been able to ride in a self-driving car to get from point A to point B.

Uber emailed the offer for the free pilot to its “most loyal customers,” and opting in takes only a few clicks. There are a few minor requirements to participate — a specific time frame and area and no more than two riders, as well as being recorded, using a seat belt and not changing the destination once the ride has started.

But outside of that, there’s no extra liability waiver or form to sign.

Riders in a self-driving Uber are subject to the same terms of service as typical Ubers. (In fact, the company last updated its terms of service in January.)

Having terms of service and adding to them isn’t a legal requirement for Uber but rather something Uber and other companies do to protect themselves, said Jason Schiffman, a lawyer with the Schiffman Firm in Pittsburgh.

Schiffman, who focuses on liability law (usually product liability) said he’s been following the rollout of Uber’s self-driving cars but does not represent the company. He said there are two probable reasons that Uber didn’t alter its terms for the self-driving car pilot.

One is that the company didn’t feel it was necessary.

The other is that Uber didn’t think adding to the terms would be effective in protecting the company from liability. And the reason for that has to do with the company’s status as a common carrier, Schiffman said.

He said inside of terms (or at the end of a user agreement) is something called an exculpatory agreement which lays out risks and says if you sign it, you assume the risk of your actions.

Think of the form you sign before you play paintball.

But those agreements are only valid if certain conditions are met. One of those conditions is that the contract is between individuals and relates to private affairs.

And that’s where Uber wouldn’t qualify, Schiffman said.

He said a case in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found Uber to be a common carrier, or public transportation that is an essential part of society and of public interest.

So adding an agreement like that to their terms wouldn’t help protect Uber, Schiffman said.

However, although Uber doesn’t require a waiver now to ride in self-driving cars, a September 26 article from The Guardian reported that Uber used waivers this summer before the public rollout.

The waivers were used during a “Friends & Family” program that ran from the end of June to the end of July, an Uber spokesperson confirmed to The Incline.

That program offered self-driving car rides to employees and their guests as a way to gather feedback before the public rollout, the spokesperson said.

Because the rides weren’t public during that program, Schiffman said it’s more likely that Uber wouldn’t have had common carrier status then.

So the the waivers would have had a greater chance of protecting the company against liability, he said.

Schiffman also added that Uber has now opened itself up to product liability as a manufacturer of self-driving cars and could be on the hook if there is an accident as the result of a defect of the car.

An Uber spokesman told The Incline that the company is happy with the response to the self-driving car pilot, but Uber is not yet releasing numbers about how often the cars are used and how many riders have opted into the program.