Are Uber's Driverless Trucks Violating California Law?

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【Summary】Like Uber’s controversial move to pursue public testing of autonomous vehicles in the area, Otto has failed to obtain a permit for its pilot programs around the highways of San Francisco.

Original Michael Cheng    Feb 14, 2017 9:30 AM PT
Are Uber's Driverless Trucks Violating California Law?

Under Uber's command, Otto (the company's self-driving truck business) is facing intense scrutiny by California regulators. A report by Car and Driver uncovered that the company may have violated autonomous driving laws related to permits, as well as maintaining records of miles driven and disengagements. If this sounds familiar, it's because Uber, Otto's parent company, made very similar "oversights" in its San Francisco, CA autonomous testing program last year.

Like Uber's controversial move to pursue public testing of autonomous vehicles in the area, Otto has failed to obtain a permit for its pilot programs around the highways of San Francisco. At the moment, it's unclear whether the startup refused to register with local transportation authorities or it overlooked the crucial requirement.

"To obtain a license, Otto would have had to produce evidence of 10,000 miles of previous autonomous operation and submit a truck for a self-driving test, such as the one completed by Google in 2012. It would also need to post a $5 million bond and file reams of paperwork," wrote Mark Harris from Back Channel.

Hiding Disengagement Data

The latter action is highly unlikely, as Uber is aware of such operational prerequisites. In 2016, the ridesharing giant argued it did not need a permit from the DMV, because its driverless fleet could not operate without human drivers. However, based on similar actions taken by Otto, many individuals are speculating that both companies do not want to publically release sensitive data related to mileage and disengagement.

Disengagement, in this case, refers to a human driver taking control of a vehicle that is in autonomous mode. For example, when performing complex maneuvers, such as parking, the operator may choose to manually execute the action to avoid collisions. It could also applicable to forcefully taking control of the vehicle on public roads, to avoid hitting other cars, objects, or pedestrians. Otto, in the Car and Driver report, admitted to performing several disengagements during testing on open roads.

This wouldn't normally be an issue for businesses testing self-driving cars. Reporting disengagements at this stage is normal, since most prototypes are not using mature driverless platforms.

Conflicting Language

Interestingly, Otto mentioned it does not need a driverless permit because the company's pilot programs only test ADAS protocols. However, this language was overridden by "self-driving system" in a recorded document submitted by Otto, describing its testing programs around Colorado. The document cited the use of a button that was used to trigger autonomous mode in the trucks.

To add more logs to the fire, this isn't the first time Otto tried to get by without registering a testing permit for its driverless trucks. In 2016, Las Vegas officials drew attention to Otto's massive fleet of self-driving trucks that were operating without a valid permit.

"We've driven a couple of miles completely driverless without a driver in the backseat — not in California, in some other state. We did that on Saturday and will have video assets to show you later today," said Lior Ron, Otto Co-founder.

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