Newly humbled, Uber asks California for permission to test self-driving cars

March 3, 2017

For years, Uber has gleefully courted controversy, but the past few weeks have been especially brutal for the company and its manchild CEO, Travis Kalanick. New reports suggest that Kalanick & Co. have finally had their fill of humble pie and are ready to begin playing by the rules.

Uber under fire

Uber's current spate of problems began in January, after President Trump announced a sweeping travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. The ban was unpopular with many Americans, resulting in a backlash against people and companies with close ties to the new president--including Kalanick, who sat on Trump's 19-member business council. 

Kalanick defended his participation on the council, but his reluctance to speak out strongly against the travel ban drew ire from many Uber users. While other council members like Elon Musk and Mary Barra managed to stay out of the fray, Kalanick became a lightning rod.

The #DeleteUber campaign was born. Within days, Kalanick had resigned from the council.

A couple of weeks later, on February 19, a former Uber engineer blogged about her horrifying experiences at the company. (If you haven't read that post, you should. If even half the things she says are accurate, she could sue the company for every penny it's got.) Other Uber employees came forward with their own stories of sexual harassment and homophobia.

The #DeleteUber campaign grew. Things got so bad that when users tried to delete their accounts, Uber sent them apologetic emails. Unfortunately, those emails included the female engineer's name--twice--which isn't the best thing for a company to do if it's trying to show that it's vehemently opposed to harassment.

Then on Tuesday, as if things couldn't get any worse, video emerged of Kalanick berating one of his own Uber drivers after the driver complained about falling fares. Kalanick issued an immediate apology, saying that "I must fundamentally change as a leader and grow up."

And, of course, let's not forget the lawsuit filed against Uber and its subsidiary, Otto. In that suit, Waymo (formerly known as Google's self-driving car project) claims that Otto founder Anthony Levandowski stole proprietary technology and began using it at Otto.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco

But in the weeks before all that happened, Uber took a beating of a slightly different, regulatory kind.

In mid-December, Uber announced that it was launching a fleet of self-driving vehicles in its hometown, San Francisco. Unfortunately, Uber had never applied to the California Department of Motor Vehicles for a permit to test autonomous cars on public roads.

Uber played coy, arguing that its self-driving vehicles weren't truly self-driving because they required an operator in the driver's seat. In that sense, Uber argued, they were no more autonomous than a Tesla with Autopilot engaged, and since Tesla owners didn't need special permits to use Autopilot, Uber's self-driving fleet didn't either.

The DMV didn't buy it. The agency issued a stern warning the day after the service launched, and a week later, Uber's self-driving vehicles had been forced off the road.

The program survived, subsequently moving to Arizona. However, the shut-down of the San Francisco pilot was a black eye to the company's reputation. The way Uber handled matters made it come off as brash and lawless, not adventurous. 

Now, Uber is trying to make amends and play by the book. To get back into the San Francisco market and back in the good graces of California, it has begun the process of applying for a permit to operate self-driving vehicles on state roads, as 23 other companies have done. 

There's no word on how long that process might take. In the meantime, Uber is operating two vehicles equipped with self-driving tech in San Francisco, but without that technology engaged. This time, it seems Uber is willing to play by the book.

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