Uber Could Be First to Test Completely Driverless Cars in Public

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has made no secret about wanting robots to replace human drivers in his rideshare service—and now he’s found somewhere to develop them. Last month, the governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey, paved the way for the world’s first driverless taxis on public roads.

At a joint press conference with Uber, Ducey unveiled an executive order calling for pilot programmes of self-driving vehicles “regardless of whether the operator is physically present in the vehicle or is providing direction remotely.”

Several U.S. states already permit autonomous vehicle tests but all require a human in the driver’s seat should the technology unexpectedly fail. While safety drivers might suit auto makers like Tesla that are building “autopilots” to help motorists avoid accidents on boring motorway journeys, Uber ultimately wants to eliminate human drivers altogether.

At a technology conference in California last year, Kalanick said, “The reason Uber could be expensive is because you’re not just paying for the car—you’re paying for the other dude in the car. When there’s no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle.”

The idea would be that the car would cope with the vast majority of situations it finds itself in, but a human monitoring its cameras and other systems online could be ready to take over if something goes wrong.

Up until now, the U.S. government has frowned on removing human drivers from the equation. In a 2013 policy paper, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) stated: 

[We] strongly recommend that states require that a properly licensed driver be seated in the driver’s seat and ready to take control of the vehicle while the vehicle is operating in self-driving mode on public roads.

All the other U.S. states that have passed laws for the testing of self-driving vehicles have followed this recommendation, requiring a driver in the car able to quickly and easily take manual control. California even requires safety drivers to be specially trained to deal with problems that self-driving cars might suffer from, such as unexpectedly steering, accelerating, or braking.

Uber is not the only company that would prefer to let self-driving vehicles fend for themselves, however. Volkswagen-Audi and Zoox, a Silicon Valley robo-taxi start-up, both unsuccessfully lobbied Californian officials to remove the requirement for a safety driver in their test vehicles. “Zoox is designing vehicles to perform all safety critical driving functions,” wrote Michael Harrison-Ford, the company’s chief of staff. “The regulations are couched in terms of traditional automobiles and risk excluding the benefits of [full] autonomy.”

Arizona promises to be a much friendlier state for such high-tech companies. “Arizona has been a great home for Uber,” the company wrote in a recent blog post. Governor Ducey championed ridesharing regulations that allowed Uber to operate legally in Arizona, and Uber opened a customer service center in the state in June. During August’s press conference, the company announced a US $25,000 donation to the University of Arizona, and committed to fund research into mapping and self-driving technologies there.

“Some universities have shied away more than they should from working with the private sector and we’re quite the opposite,” says Tom Koch, dean of the University’s College of Optical Sciences. “For us, working with companies like Uber has always been a tremendous win.”

Ducey’s executive order looks to have been written with Uber in mind. It requires that Arizona’s driverless vehicle pilot programmes take place on the campuses of public universities, such as the University of Arizona. It also directs the state’s Department of Transportation, Department of Public Safety and “all other agencies” to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.”

This means that when Uber does reveal its self-driving taxi, it should be able to legally drive paying customers around the University from day one, which may not be too far off. Uber told Spectrum that the company’s mapping vehicles are already operating on the university’s public roads. Although the cars do not currently have self-driving capabilities, they do have laser-ranging lidar units and multiple video cameras similar to those used by many autonomous vehicles today.

“Uber will be engaging our faculty with specific interests that they have,” says Koch. “We’re anticipating that Uber will work with us on problems that are near term, helping them with engineering solutions in the design of advanced imaging systems.”

The close relations between Uber and Arizona come as no surprise to Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina and expert in self-driving law. “You have companies that are looking for customised legal regimes,” he says. “There is probably a project underway to do some kind of testing and this is the way that the company has suggested moving forward in a limited fashion to facilitate only what it wants to do.”

Smith thinks that Governor’s Ducey’s choice of university campuses should limit the risk to the public if the technology fails. “It points to a low-speed shuttle system moving around in a constrained geographic area,” he says. “If you’re going slow enough, the car has more time to process and decide how to respond to events. And if it gets it wrong, the damage is likely to be much less.”

Uber told Spectrum that it has not made any plans or announcements for self-driving vehicles beyond what was revealed in Arizona last month. However, documents obtained by IEEE Spectrum show that the company has approached a testing facility for autonomous vehicles in California. GoMentum Station is a disused military base in the Bay Area that Apple was also considering for testing its self-driving car.

The NHTSA was not able to comment on Arizona’s roadmap for legalising driverless taxis for public use. But in its policy paper, the agency says, “NHTSA does not recommend that states authorize the operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing at this time. Self-driving vehicle technology is not yet at the stage of sophistication or demonstrated safety capability that it should be authorized for use by members of the public for general driving purposes.”

While the NHTSA cannot ban Uber outright, it does have options to investigate and if necessary recall self-driving vehicles, according to Smith. “This isn’t a free for all,” he says. “The NHTSA can make life difficult for Uber if things get out of hand.”


Cars That Think

IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.
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New York City
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