Calif. Bill Would Crack Down on Driverless Cars

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – California opened another front in its battle with Uber on Thursday, with a lawmaker’s introduction of a bill that would increase penalties for putting driverless cars on public roads without a permit.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, introduced Assembly Bill 87, which would authorize the Department of Motor Vehicles to fine companies as much as $25,000 per vehicle per day for putting autonomous vehicles on the roads without the proper permission.

“I applaud our innovation economy and all the companies developing autonomous vehicle technology, but no community should face what we did in San Francisco,” Ting said in a statement. “The pursuit of innovation does not include a license to put innocent lives at risk.”

What San Francisco faced was Uber’s autonomous driver program, launched in mid-December by placing 16 autonomous vehicles in rotation in San Francisco. The vehicles were driven by robots with humans overseeing the cars’ operation, which Uber claimed was reason enough not to go through the DMV’s permitting process.

DMV officials balked, threatening legal action unless the vehicles were withdrawn immediately. Uber bowed under government pressure on Dec. 22, announcing they had pulled the cars from San Francisco and shipped them to Phoenix to pursue its testing program there.

Ting sharply criticized the ride-share giant for “recklessly putting profits before public safety.”

Along with strengthening the fines, Ting’s bill would prevent companies who violate the permitting protocol from legally obtaining a permit for up to two years.

Uber says it no longer has any autonomous vehicles on California streets and further says it is committed to working collaboratively with state officials.

“We remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules,” a company spokesperson told Courthouse News on Thursday. “Other states, including Pennsylvania, Nevada, Florida and Arizona, have taken a more progressive approach. We will continue to work in our home state to develop workable rules here.”

Uber is headquartered in San Francisco.

The city’s mayor joined a chorus of California-based officials in denouncing Uber’s approach to its autonomous vehicle program, but was discernibly more subdued in his criticism of the company.

“Innovation is critical to the future of San Francisco and so is the public safety of its residents,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee in a statement. “These two priorities go hand in hand and I look forward to collaborating with all parties to ensure the safety of San Franciscans as we continue to work with companies who bring innovative, new ideas to our city.”

While Uber has agreed to pull its cars from San Francisco streets, it maintains its program is well within the legal framework.

“We remain confident that California’s autonomous car regulations do not apply to Uber’s technology,” the company said. “This is because the legislation explicitly excludes vehicles that are not capable of driving ‘without the active control or monitoring of a human operator.’”

Nevertheless, Ting and other officials assert Uber was derelict in not getting the proper permitting, which they characterize as fairly straightforward.

As many as 20 other companies have obtained permits for up to 120 different test cars, Ting said. The permit cost is $150 and is designed to ensure the cars have proper insurance, registration and do not pose a threat to other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

“Nearly every company knows and acts like it is part of a community,” Ting said. “They follow the law.”

While Uber says human monitoring meant the cars were not a real threat to public safety, Ting pointed to dashcam footage from a Luxor Cab that appeared to show an autonomous Uber car running a red light near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said the vehicles were not properly merging into the bicycle lanes in order to make a right turn, endangering cyclists in the city.

Autonomous vehicles hold great promise for reducing collisions and improving safety for everyone on our streets,” Wiedenmeier said. “It’s important that autonomous vehicle technology is developed with respect for both the law and public safety.”