Who wins when California takes on Uber? None of us

Let's all get on the same page and make self-driving cars a reality.

uber san francisco

News about Uber being forced to stop their autonomous car test in California came as quite a shock...to Uber, their test drivers, and anyone trying to get across town.

From what I’ve seen so far, there is no reason to believe the DMV in California has any ulterior motives. Uber did not acquire the necessary permits for self-driving cars, and neither did their partner Volvo. The XC90 high-tech SUVs in the test, plastered with Uber decals, can drive on their own, but someone sits behind the wheel. And, there’s a passenger to take notes.

The story is a little complicated. In California, there’s a self-driving car permit, and many other automakers have one including Ford and Audi. The DMV threatened  to fine Uber, then eventually revoked the standard vehicle registration saying they lacked the licensing required for test cars. Uber fought them every step of the way, saying the cars are not fully autonomous. I guess you could say that's the end of the story.

Still, hold on for a moment. Maybe this all seems like a paperwork problem, but I see it as a setback for autonomous driving. I’m a big fan of what Uber is doing because, unlike many other car self-driving tests, this one is in the real world with actual passengers. You do have to agree to be a bit of a guinea pig, and it looks perfectly safe to me, but there is a lot of information Uber (and every one else) can learn from this testing. California may not have impure motives at all, but it seems like the state could have worked out a better agreement to keep the cars rolling.

And, revoking the standard registration for the cars? That also seems aggressive. You might say, well -- we don’t want anyone sending out a fleet of autonomous cars on the public roadways. That seems dangerous! We need a system.

You know what’s even more dangerous? Human drivers. The reason autonomous cars tech is such an important topic right now is because roadway fatalities are going up, yet the technology to make this happen -- the sensors, the machine learning, the mapping, and even the cars -- is improving quickly and getting cheaper to develop and test.

Also, Uber is the most valuable private company in the world, to the tune of $66B. I’m guessing they can afford a few permits for their cars. There’s some bureaucracy at work here, and it’s a troubling sign, even if you agree that Uber was at fault for not doing the registrations.

For self-driving tech to advance, there needs to be a radical change in how states and even the federal government view automations. Instead of blocking the permits, maybe California should have pushed them through quickly (and then do that for other companies). How about dedicated roads to help build the infrastructure? Connecting the traffic lights so that there’s an industry-wide standard anyone can use to feed data to the cars and help ease congestion?

Getting on the same page means cooperation, not roadblocks. Maybe Google (by way of Waymo and the Chrysler Pacifica) will jump in and push the tech, but another startup will. My sense is that Uber is more aggressive about this and wants to get cars on the road sooner. California? They are worried about some permits.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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