San Francisco Lets Uber's Self-Driving Cars Back on the Streets, With a Human Driver

Getty Images / Jeff Swensen

Uber’s self-driving cars got in big trouble about six weeks ago, when one of the company’s five autonomous Ford Fusions ran a red light in San Francisco. Now, the CTA is letting them back on the road, with just one caveat: they don’t get to be self-driving anymore. Uber’s vehicles have lost their self-driving privileges, and will have to be driven around the city by a human chaperone.

The cars will be used for mapping purposes only, and will be entirely human-driven; their self-driving component will not even be engaged. They will, nonetheless, sport the “Uber Advanced Technologies Center” logo, and generally prepare the city for self-driving pilots by collecting map information and acclimatizing people to the sight of a car that, so far as they can tell from across the street, very well might be driving itself.

Uber has officially denied that the red light incident was due to their self-driving software, and is blaming it on human error — but that couldn’t save them. It turns out that the company’s whole San Francisco pilot project was riding dirty, having refused to get the proper permits.

Uber’s argument was that it didn’t need a self-driving permit, since there was always technically an engineer sitting in the driver’s seat, presumably ready to take over with cat-like reflexes. The San Francisco authorities decided that they didn’t see things that way, and the cars came off the road. Uber released a series of photos of their cars being carted off on a truck.

This time-out for Uber may very well have more to do with chastising the company for its antics, than worries about its self-driving software. There’s currently no estimate about when the self-driving software might be able to be reactivated.

The red light incident isn’t the only problem Uber has had with its self-driving aspirations. In Pittsburgh, there were reports of an Uber car driving the wrong way down a street.

Whatever laws end up governing self-driving cars, Uber will need to abide by all of them, not just the ones it finds convenient.

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