The California DMV insists that tech powerhouse Uber obtain special permits to operate its self-driving cars, and has threatened legal action if Uber fails to comply, according to a recent ABC News report.
On Dec. 14, an Uber Volvo SUV, equipped as a self-driving vehicle, ran a red light outside of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. In the process, the Volvo apparently came close to hitting a pedestrian. Uber claims that it was human error. Nonetheless, the California DMV wants Uber to obtain permits to test its self-driving cars on public roads.
Apparently, Uber has refused to do so, claiming that with human operators behind the controls in case something goes wrong, Uber enjoys an exception to the permit rule.
This brings us to the basic conflict between automakers and regulators. Put simply, it boils down to safety. And there is a big difference in terms of approach, which is one of pursuing opportunity vs. managing risk.
Automakers Pursue Opportunity
Companies like Uber (and Google, Tesla Motors, etc.) clearly view the concern as one of opportunity.
Self-driving cars that operate flawlessly (or near-flawlessly) will have an unimaginable impact on the safety of our roadways in America and heavily populated cities like San Francisco. Everyone from drivers and passengers to cyclists and pedestrians stand to benefit from a transit system that no longer accommodates drunk driving, distracted driving, reckless driving, etc., because self-driving cars remove these longstanding problems from the equation.
The human factor, error prone as it can be, will no longer exist, which translates to a substantial reduction in the number of people injured or killed on the roads. To get there, Uber argues, it must test is self-driving cars in the real world, on real roads, in real conditions.
Regulators Manage Risk
Regulators, on the other hand, are understandably reactive in their approach to safety. In the California DMV's case, regulators must confront a series of unknowns.
For example, how do we distinguish between true human error and a computer glitch?
As a society, we haven't been here before. Roadways full of self-driving cars were, until now, the stuff of science fiction. So when an Uber vehicle runs a red light on the busy streets of San Francisco, it reminds all of us that the technology is still in its infancy, and a little bit of caution could go a long way.