Spencer McManus

Autonomous Vehicle Companies Forge on Despite Uber Accident

Autonomous vehicle companies still appear all-in on the development of self-driving cars—despite recent accidents and hesitation from states to grant the companies expanded testing authorization.

On March 18, an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona.1 Uber responded by stopping testing in Arizona and San Francisco, Toronto, and Pittsburgh.2 Reports after the accident suggested that Uber’s vehicles had failed to live up to internal company expectations in the months before the crash.3 Early statements from the Tempe Police Department suggested that the Uber vehicle may not have actually been at fault in the accident.4

Nevertheless, after the accident, Arizona withdrew permission for Uber to test its driverless vehicles in the state.5 “The incident that took place on March 18, is an unquestionable failure to comply with the expectation” that Uber would “prioritize public safety” in its self-driving car tests, Governor Doug Ducey said in a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi. 6 The move reversed a long history of openness to autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona to both Waymo and other self-driving car companies. 7

In a sign of potential internal turmoil over the future of its self-driving program, Uber withdrew its request to renew a permit in California for continued testing of its autonomous fleet.8 “We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident. Given this, we decided not to reapply for a California D.M.V. permit, with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future,” said Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman.9

Uber’s retreat and Arizona’s recent about-face are against the trend of other states and companies, however. On March 27, Waymo announced a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover to manufacture 20,000 autonomous luxury vehicles.10 The vehicle, called the Jaguar I–PACE, will complement its fleet of other vehicles, providing up to a million rides per day when its ride service launches within two years.11 The Atlantic hailed it as the “most important self-driving car announcement yet” because of its potential to normalize the experience of being a passenger in a truly driverless vehicle by the start of the next decade, and for the potential to give its cars millions of miles of driving experience per hour, making the cars safer and more reliable with each day.12

Tesla also continues to expand. Production of its Model 3 vehicle, the first mass production car capable of full self-driving, reached production of over 200 units per day by the end of March.13 The milestone represented a slight recovery from earlier production difficulties that forced Tesla to significantly delay delivery estimates for eager customers.14 Over 500,000 had put down a deposit on the vehicle when first announced, and although the company faced over 60,000 cancellations following the initial delays, over 1,800 orders per day continued to come in.15

Other states also continue to pass laws more receptive to testing and ultimate consumer ownership of autonomous vehicles. California recently eliminated the requirement for self-driving cars to have a human in the drivers’ seat.16 The proposal included a process for these same cars to transport passengers in ride-sharing services, a clear tip of the hat to Waymo’s recent announcements.17 At the time of this writing, at least 41 states and the District of Columbia had at least considered legislation related to autonomous vehicles, with most of those states having some rule on the books.18

Barriers remain to nationwide proliferation of these vehicles. With disparate state regulations, an owner of a self-driving car would not be able to travel across state lines in self-driving mode.19 The United States Department of Transportation continues its work on developing federal regulatory rules. It recently rolled out Vision for Safety 2.0, the second version of a list of voluntary guidelines for the development of autonomous vehicles.20 With a uniform set of federal regulations for the operation of such vehicles, the enthusiasm shown by companies and most states could allow for wider acceptance and adoption of self-driving cars.

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2018; University of California, Davis, B.A.S. 2015. ©2018, Spencer McManus.