Uber returning to driverless car testing

Here’s a subject that had basically disappeared from the headlines for quite a while. Back in 2018, it seemed as if we were getting new stories about self-driving cars and trucks on a daily basis. Uber was one of the early leaders in the field, preparing to launch a fleet of vehicles that you could summon to give you a ride with no driver on board. That all came screeching to a halt by the end of that year after one of their driverless prototypes struck and killed a female bicyclist in Arizona. Later analysis showed that the car had accurately detected the woman’s presence but it just failed to react by pumping the brakes. Shortly after that, the company suspended development of the autonomous vehicles

We heard almost nothing about these programs throughout 2019. But now that the new decade is upon us, Uber apparently thinks that it’s time to get back into the game. They’re going to resume testing of this project and have been approved to deploy some of their magical machines on the streets of San Francisco. (Sacramento Bee)

Uber, the international rideshare company, has gotten approval from California regulators to test self-driving cars on state roads, company officials announced Wednesday.

Uber officials said they intend to conduct autonomous vehicle tests in San Francisco, the headquarters city for the 11-year-old company that sparked a transportation revolution with the introduction of app-based ride-hailing.

The company employs independent drivers, but its business model long has anticipated fleets of autonomous vehicles at some future point. The company previously tested its autonomous cars in San Francisco but was forced by state officials to shut the program down until the state could come up with safety standards.

While Uber isn’t providing a date yet as to when testing will officially resume, it sounds like it’s going to be fairly soon. And I’m guessing they won’t want to wait too long because it sounds as if they’re facing a lot of competition. The linked report notes that the state of California has already issued permits to no less than 600 companies allowing them to test self-driving vehicles on public roads.

So what’s the chief factor driving Uber back into this market after their rather disastrous crash in Arizona? For one thing, California previously halted all such testing until they developed new safety guidelines. That work is now complete, so any companies meeting those standards will be allowed to conduct testing under controlled conditions.

But I’m guessing that politics has played a part in this as well. The decision almost certainly has something to do with AB5, the law that redefined private contractors such as Uber drivers. The new law seeks to force ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft to treat their drivers like regular employees and offer benefits as well as a minimum wage to them.

That change would break Uber’s business model entirely (which was probably the lawmakers’ intention to begin with). The passage of the law has spurred any number of lawsuits, most of which are still in progress, as well as forcing the company to change how drivers operate in California. But if they wind up losing in court, the ultimate solution for Uber would obviously be to simply do away with their drivers entirely. You don’t have to pay wages to machines or offer them benefits… at least not yet.

If that’s how this all plays out, we will have seen California legislators once again claiming to “help” workers in the Golden State wind up helping to drive them out of work. It’s a stunning pattern of big government failure that continues to this day.