Why Pittsburgh still has self-driving cars while Uber’s San Francisco pilot was nixed

Uber is packing up its self-driving vehicles and going to Arizona.

Self-driving Ubers left San Francisco for Arizona on Thursday morning.

Self-driving Ubers left San Francisco for Arizona on Thursday morning.

courtesy of Uber
MJ Slaby

Pittsburgh is once again the only city where Uber users can ride in self-driving cars.

Well, for now. 

For a little over a week, the ride-sharing company also had a pilot program in San Francisco, the city where the company was founded. But yesterday, Uber pulled the cars from its streets.

According to a statement from Uber:

“We have stopped our self-driving pilot in California as the DMV has revoked the registrations for our self-driving cars. We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

An Uber spokesman wouldn’t comment Thursday on whether the change will impact the Pittsburgh pilot or its goal of having 100 self-driving Volvos on roads by the end of the year.

However, it appears that the goal will be close, because the spokesman added this:

“Our cars departed for Arizona this morning by truck. We’ll be expanding our self-driving pilot there in the next few weeks, and we’re excited to have the support of Governor (Doug) Ducey.”

And look how festive those self-driving semis are!

Self-Driving 5
courtesy of uber

California vs. Pennsylvania

It comes down to definitions and differences between Pennsylvania and California laws.

In Pennsylvania, current state law requires a licensed driver to be in the driver’s seat of self-driving vehicles, even if that person isn’t touching the steering wheel. 

Right now, PennDOT is accepting public comment through Jan. 12 on recommendations from a state Autonomous Vehicles Testing Policy Task Force. But the policy recommendations are subject to edits and to any laws passed in the next legislative session.

In California, the Department of Motor Vehicles requires a testing permit for autonomous vehicles. That requirement is a point of contention between Uber and California. The company said from the start that its vehicles don’t fit the definition of autonomous and, therefore, don’t need a testing permit. On Friday, three days after the pilot started, Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, stressed that in a statement.

The regulations apply to “autonomous vehicles”. And autonomous vehicles are defined as cars equipped with technology that can — and I quote — “drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” But the self-driving Ubers that we have in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh today are not capable of driving “without … active physical control or monitoring”. 

The state of California said the vehicles fit the definition and threatened legal action the day after the pilot launch, Business Insider reported. Then the state Attorney General Office said it would seek legal action as well, reported TechCrunch. So on Wednesday, lawyers from Uber and California’s DMV and Attorney General’s office met before the cars’ registrations were pulled.

In his statement from Friday, Levandowski also noted: “We have been safely driving self-driving Ubers in the same manner in Pittsburgh for months, where policymakers and regulators are supportive of our efforts.”

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania …

The Pennsylvania state task force focusing on policy includes two members from Uber — Ashwini Chhabra, head of policy development and Shari Shapiro, head of public affairs for Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In an online forum following the release of the task force report, PennDOT executive deputy chief counsel Jason Sharp, also pointed out that autonomous is not the best term for the self-driving vehicles tested in Pennsylvania.

Sharp said autonomous vehicles operate independently, which the cars being tested in the state don’t do, so the better term is automated even though “popular culture has seemed to glom on to autonomous.”

Should the task force recommendations go forward in Pennsylvania, testers of self-driving cars will submit proposals and sign contracts with PennDOT. The department could also request a demonstration. Existing testers would have 90 days to submit a proposal before they would be forced to stop, according to the recommendations. 

Since the pilot started in Pittsburgh there have been several fender benders, but the company isn’t releasing information about those cases to the public just yet. (There are internal discussions on the topic.)

In addition to the permitting issues in San Francisco, a self-driving Uber also ran a red light and made unsafe turns into bike lanes.