Uber’s Self-Driving Cars Could Be a Threat to Bicyclists

December 20, 2016, 4:23 PM UTC
Uber launches self-driving pilot in San Francisco with Volvo Cars
Uber launches self-driving pilot in San Francisco with Volvo Cars
Courtesy of Volvo Cars

Uber’s self-driving test cars have been spotted—and videoed—running red lights in San Francisco. Now, the ride-hailing company is admitting its autonomous vehicles have problems properly crossing bike lanes, raising the ire of safety and bicycle advocates.

An Uber spokeswoman told The Guardian that engineers are working to fix a programming problem in the self-driving cars that cause them to make illegal right-hand “hook style” turns through bike lanes. State law dictates drivers must merge into the bike lane before making a right-hand turn to avoid hitting cyclists moving forward.

Brian Wiedenmeier, the executive director of San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, issued a public warning last week concluding the self-driving cars are not ready for testing on public roads. Wiedenmeier gave a first-hand account of his demo ride in one of the cars, just two days before Uber’s widespread deployment of the technology. From the blog post:

In the ride I took through the streets of SoMa on Monday, the autonomous vehicle in “self-driving” mode as well as the one in front of it took an unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane. Twice. This kind of turn is one featured in a 2013 blog post that is known to be one of the primary causes of collisions between cars and people who bike resulting in serious injury or fatality. It’s also an unsafe practice that we address in all of the safety curriculum we offer to professional drivers, including the videos we consulted on for Uber as recently as this fall.

Uber has instructed its test drivers to “to disengage from self-driving mode when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane and that engineers are continuing to work on the problem,” Wiedenmeier wrote.

This latest revelation comes less than a week since Uber unleashed its self-driving cars onto San Francisco’s public roads despite lacking the proper state permit to conduct such testing. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has sent a letter to Uber ordering the company to cease the operations of its self-driving cars until it has filed and received a testing permit.

Uber has defied these demands and says the regulation doesn’t apply to the company because its cars are not truly driverless. The car require active physical control and monitoring, Uber has said.

Twenty automakers and tech companies hold permits issued by the DMW to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in California, including Google, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes, Tesla and startups such as Drive.ai, NextEV, and Zoox.

Uber is also testing its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Both test fleets use the Volvo XC90 SUV as part of a $300 million alliance with the automaker. Under the agreement, Uber is purchasing the vehicles from Volvo Car Group and installing its own self-driving system.