Is Uber Testing Self-Driving Trucks Without Authorization?

Image courtesy of Uber

The California Department of Motor Vehicles, which previously shut down Uber’s self-driving car program in the state, is now looking into whether the ride-hailing company may have broken the law by testing autonomous trucks without approval.

Forbes reports that earlier this year, employees of Uber’s self-driving truck program, which recently stopped using the name Otto after a trademark dispute, told DMV regulators that vehicles weren’t being driven autonomously.

“The trucks cannot drive themselves in California in the manner that they did in Colorado; we deliberately use only driver-assist tech in California,” a company spokeswoman told Forbes. “This technology is the essential foundation upon which autonomous technologies are built, but is not autonomous in itself.”

A document from 2016 prepared for regulators in Colorado [PDF] says that “Otto trucks drive the highways surrounding San Francisco on a daily basis,” and describes tests of self-driving trucks with a driver ready to take over at any moment and a co-driver watching the truck’s technical operations.

The well-publicized 120-mile test in Colorado was billed as being an autonomous beer run. Which is it? Uber is shifting the definition, saying that having a driver and an engineer means that the vehicles aren’t self-driving, since the driver can take over at any time by touching the steering wheel or one of the pedals.

Yet having a human driver “take over” means that the they’re taking over control from something else, and that the truck is driving itself in the first place. That would be illegal: While self-driving car tests are happening on public roads in California, vehicles over 10,000 pounds aren’t covered.

Uber claims that the technology being tested in its trucks in California is “driver assist” technology, like the blind spot detection, crash prevention systems, and dynamic cruise control that are increasingly common in new cars, or the Autopilot mode available in Tesla vehicles.

Critics of the company say that this is nonsense. Remember, Uber just went ahead and tested cars in California without bothering to get permits, only stopping when the DMV yanked the vehicles’ registrations.

“I believe they are flagrantly flouting the law,” Consumer Watchdog director John Simpson told the magazine. “It’s absolutely clear they are testing robot trucks.”

Uber’s argument about why the trucks aren’t self-driving is the same argument used last year in the DMV dispute as well. The head of the autonomous vehicle program, who came to the company when it acquired truck startup Otto, told reporters at the time that the vehicles wouldn’t work without “active physical control or monitoring” from the driver, making them not autonomous. That driver mostly keeps their hands off the wheel.