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Mind-Boggling Uber Hubris

Mind-Boggling Uber Hubris
by Roger C. Lanctot on 12-18-2016 at 7:00 am

 Uber was on a mighty roll throughout 2016 picking up strategic alliances with Ford Motor Company and Volvo Cars (for test vehicles) adding talent (cybersecurity experts Chris Vlasek and Charlie Miller) and acquisitions (Otto) and rubbing up against university researchers (Carnegie Mellon). So it was jaw-droppingly hideous to see its hot streak interrupted by various driver slip-ups on day one of testing in San Francisco.

Various press reports noted Thursday that California regulators told Uber to stop its autonomous vehicle service in San Francisco because it was illegal. Uber had chosen not to acquire the necessary state permits to operate an autonomous vehicle service in the state.

It appears that Uber’s launch of self-driving Volvo’s with human “drivers” had been outed as a result of multiple red-light running incidents, some caught on video. But the San Francisco launch was no secret. It was given ample publicity. It leaves one to wonder what Uber executives were thinking – particularly with Google car veteran Anthony Levandowski on the team by virtue of the Otto acquisition.

While Google always regarded California’s regulatory intrusions with disdain, the reality is that the data reporting obligation of the California permitting program has actually allowed Google to strut its technological advantage over competing offerings. The California data reported by Google shows steady improvement in automated driving performance consistently exceeding the performance of the competition.

It’s possible that Uber feared revealing the delta between its own performance and Google’s, but we may never know as Uber declined to comment on the red-light running other than to blame the human drivers. Of course!

But the really odd aspect of the situation is the fact that previous Uber acquisitions included deCarta which has worked with companies like Global Mobile Alert to use contextual information, such as intersection and traffic light locations, to mitigate driver distraction and prevent mishaps. Intersections are one of the greatest and most obvious challenges for self driving cars. But intersections are a challenge to cars that are driven by human beings as well.

One-third of all highway fatalities in the U.S. occur at intersections – including drivers, passengers and pedestrians. Rather than using self-driving car technology to demonstrate the life-saving advantages of letting computers do the driving, Uber has highlighted the shortcomings of the meat in the machine.
Even Tesla knew better than to take on this challenge, so far. Tesla advises using its autopilot function on highways, not secondary roads or in cities. Although Tesla drivers are not prevented from using autopilot wherever they choose.

There are three essential takeaways from the Uber kerfuffle:


  • This is no kerfuffle. This was a major screw up by Uber and placed the company outside the bounds of acceptable behavior by self-driving car startups in California or anywhere else. Uber has thereby given self-driving cars and the SDC community overall a bad name.
  • Enhanced intersection management is necessary to reduce overall highway fatalities generally and pedestrian fatalities in particular. Uber may be solving self-driving car challenges, but the company is doing nothing to mitigate pedestrian fatalities and enhance the mastery of intersections by SDCs.
  • Uber is its own worst enemy. The failure this week and the subsequent sanction by California was completely avoidable. It has now, once again, cast Uber as the outlaw that it seems to be.

    Uber’s work on self-driving cars is meant to be transformative of both transportation overall and of the company itself. True to its corporate mantra of violating or avoiding local ordinances for people-moving services, Uber took on the law in California and the law won. But now the wider SDC development community is losing in the process.

    Uber is now giving autonomous vehicles a bad name while attempting to pin the blame on the human drivers. This is always the way with Uber: throwing its drivers under the self-driving bus. Uber could have prevented the incident with enhanced contextual awareness built into the car and with a simple application for a autonomous vehicle permit. With billions of dollars on the line, you’d think Uber would get its head out of its hubris. I’m not counting on it.

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