California says goodbye to Uber’s driverless cars

After the fatal crash involving a pedestrian in Arizona, the ride-hailing company says it's indefinitely halting its autonomous vehicle program in the Golden State.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Uber first rolled out its self-driving cars to San Francisco in late 2016.

James Martin/CNET

Last week, for the first time, a pedestrian was killed by one of Uber's self-driving cars.

The company immediately halted its autonomous vehicle operations in all cities where it'd been testing its vehicles, including Tempe, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto. Uber also started discussions with legislators and authorities in those cities about the next steps for its driverless car program.

Uber said it informed California's Department of Motor Vehicles on Friday that it decided not to renew its autonomous vehicle testing permit -- meaning it's indefinitely stopping its self-driving car program in the state.

"We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident," an Uber spokeswoman said in an email. "Given this, we decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future."

The DMV responded on Tuesday confirming Uber's decision. The DMV's Deputy Director Brian Soublet sent a letter to Uber saying that its current autonomous vehicle testing permit expires on March 31 and if the company wants to resume operations again in the state it must apply for another permit.

"Any application for a new permit will need to address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona and may also require a meeting with the department," Soublet wrote in the letter, which was obtained by CNET.

The fatal accident happened in Tempe, Arizona, on a Sunday night and was captured by the car's dashboard video camera. It shows a safety driver sitting behind the wheel but looking down at her lap since the vehicle was in full autonomous mode. The pedestrian, Elaine Herzberg, is seen crossing the dark street pushing her bicycle when the car collides into her. The vehicle was traveling about 40 mph at the moment of impact and didn't brake or swerve.

The incident has brought intensified scrutiny of the fledgling self-driving car industry. In the aftermath of the accident, Toyota announced it was temporarily grounding its cars, as did the chipmaker Nvidia, according to Reuters. Uber's lidar and radar suppliers Velodyne and Aptiv have also distanced themselves from Uber saying it wasn't their technology that failed, according to Bloomberg.

"We are as baffled as anyone else," Velodyne President Marta Hall said in an email last week. "Certainly, our Lidar is capable of clearly imaging Elaine and her bicycle in this situation. However, our Lidar doesn't make the decision to put on the brakes or get out of her way."

Along with Uber indefinitely halting its self-driving operations in California, the company has also been banned from testing in Arizona. Gov. Doug Ducey, who welcomed Uber with open arms a year ago, wrote a strongly worded letter to the company on Monday.

"I found the video to be disturbing and alarming," Ducey wrote. "Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona's approach to autonomous vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona. The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation."

Tempe police are conducting an investigation into the crash. They are working with the National Transportation Safety Board and the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine who, or what, was at fault for the accident.

As for Uber's testing in Pennsylvania, the company isn't required to obtain a permit from the state. But for the time being it's still keeping its driverless cars off the road. Uber said it's in contact with the mayor of Pittsburgh and the governor of Pennsylvania and will keep those conversations going as the investigation in Arizona continues.

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