A few months back, Uber announced it was going to test something potentially groundbreaking–they announced tests of self-driving rideshare services in San Francisco. Unfortunately for Uber, the tests turned out to be more premature than groundbreaking. The California DMV condemned the tests as illegal and demanded that Uber not roll out their self-driving cars. In the face of the disapproval of the California DMV, Uber decided to totally ignore the DMV and move forward with the tests anyway–for a week. After moving forward, the California DMV revoked the registrations on every single one of Uber’s self-driving cars and Uber was forced to abandon their tests.
What’s the Problem with Uber’s Self-Driving Cars?
The problem California had with Uber’s self-driving test cars was a simple one, Uber simply didn’t bother to get the permits necessary to use an autonomous car in California. Uber objected to the requirement of permits in the first place, arguing that because their self-driving cars needed human supervision they were not actually autonomous under California’s definition as California currently defines an autonomous car as one that drives “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” The vice-president of Uber’s advanced technologies division made an announcement stating that “this rule just doesn’t apply to us, you don’t need to wear a belt and suspenders and whatever else if you’re wearing a dress.”
The California DMV, as you can tell from how they responded, didn’t agree. They’ve already issued hundreds permits to test autonomous cars on the roads of California. They consider this permitting necessary for public safety when it comes to such new technology, and they demanded that Uber follow their rules. Perhaps this was a wise precaution, in the one week Uber’s cars were running one was caught on tape running a red light.
This isn’t the first time Uber has chosen to ignore state laws in testing automation or had trouble with the law. In fact, their very business model has occasionally been challenged as illegal. Earlier this year, Uber went forward with testing self-driving trucks in Nevada despite explicit warnings from the state’s DMV that doing so would violate Nevada law. Luckily for Uber, while Nevada has similar permitting requirements to California, the laws were so new as to not yet have any penalties set up for failure to comply.
Despite these setbacks, Uber’s self-driving plans have been making strides around the nation. In Pittsburgh they have been given essentially free reign with a similar program testing autonomous ridesharing. They have announced they will be moving the San Francisco test cars to Arizona and moving forward there.
Part of Uber’s problem, and how they caught a break in Nevada, is that self-driving cars are so new that very little law has actually sprung up to regulate how and when they can be used. However, this has been slowly changing as states recognize that autonomous cars are here to stay.
Self-Driving Car Laws Around the Nation
Self-driving cars are coming and it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Just recently, Ohio announced it was investing $15M in self driving trucks going forward. In the same week, Michigan became the first state to pass comprehensive laws on using, testing, developing and selling self-driving cars.
However, luckily for companies like Uber, Michigan’s laws have not focused on restricting the use and testing of self-driving cars–quite the opposite. Michigans bills, 995 through 998, provide clear rules for how an autonomous car may be used on public roads and freeways. The laws are set up to make clear rules for testing. Once testing is complete, the new laws even allow for properly tested automated vehicles to be sold to the public. The laws also require the Michigan Department of Transportation to recommend standards that will ultimately regulate the connected networks of autonomous cars and how the data collected from such a network–collisions, traffic data, etc.–will be allowed to shared with others.
What is less fortunate for Uber is that the laws also serve to outright lock them out of any self-driving rideshare services. The new laws only allow specific most eligible automakers from creating a network of self-driving taxis. While the law is very new, it certainly seems like this would keep Uber from spreading their new programs into Michigan.
Uber seems to think so, they’ve heartily condemned this part of the law in the media–calling the rules anti-tech and protectionist. They have a point to a degree, creating a state made monopoly on a service or product does not seem like the best idea. However, for the most part, Michigan’s rules will serve to open doors and ease the way as self-driving vehicles make their way into the marketplace.
While Michigan’s laws are the most sweeping, and likely the most lenient, laws passed on the subject they are far from the only laws regulating self-driving cars. California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, North Dakota, Louisiana, Tennessee, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Virginia all have laws in place regulating the use of autonomous vehicles. In September of 2016, even the federal government–through the National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration–released an updated set of suggestions providing guidance for states in making laws.
It hasn’t all been forward progress, 16 states had self-driving car legislation that either stalled out or failed to pass in 2016. However, Michigan–perhaps because it is a state so embroiled in car manufacturing–has taken the next steps in a trend towards fully preparing for self-driving vehicles to hit the market in earnest. It’s only a matter of time until autonomous cars become as common as hybrids have become. Uber may be flouting laws right now, but what they’re doing is going to become so common as to need clear regulation nationwide.