On 14 December 2016, a video purportedly showing a driverless Uber running a red light in San Francisco appeared and was quickly circulated on social media:
The video was published on the same day that Uber launched its driverless fleet in San Francisco:
Starting today, riders who request an uberX in San Francisco will be matched with a Self-Driving Uber if one is available. Expanding our self-driving pilot allows us to continue to improve our technology through real-world operations. With its challenging roads and often varied weather, Pittsburgh provided a wide array of experiences. San Francisco comes with its own nuances including more bikes on the road, high traffic density and narrow lanes.
According to the San Francisco Examiner, the footage was taken by a dashboard camera of a Luxor cab:
Charles Rotter, operations manager at Luxor, confirmed to the Examiner that the video was from Wednesday.
“Yes, the dashcam of one of our ramp vans at 10:37 this am,” he wrote, in an email.
The cab pulls up to a red light on Third Street in South of Market, by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A pack of cars flies through a yellow light, and one even drives through the first moment of a red light.
About three seconds after the light turned red, an Uber self-driving car can apparently be seen traveling through the red light at moderate speed as a pedestrian walks across the intersection on the right side of the intersection.
While the video does show an Uber vehicle driving through a red light, it was not initially clear whether the vehicle was self-driven at the time. The cameras at the top of the vehicle indicate that it is capable of operating without a driver, but such vehicles can still be driven by humans.
Uber said in a statement to TechCrunch that the incident was unequivocally due to human error:
This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers. This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate.
Later in the afternoon of 14 December 2016, the state of California’s Department of Motor Services ordered Uber to halt its self-driving car rides, effective immediately, as its “autonomous vehicles” were operating without the proper permits:
The DMV requires a permit to use autonomous vehicles on public roads. Uber, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment, had previously argued that its technology was exempt.
“The rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them,” wrote Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, in a blog post published early Wednesday morning, before the DMV letter came out. “For us, it’s still early days, and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”
It came out a few months later by way of a report from the New York Times that although Uber had said this traffic violation was due to “human error,” the vehicle was, in fact, driving itself at the time of the incident. The newspaper spoke to two anonymous employees and viewed internal company documents which stated that Uber’s mapping program failed to recognize not one, but six traffic lights in San Francisco:
Uber, a ride-hailing service, said the incident was because of human error. “This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” Chelsea Kohler, a company spokeswoman, said in December.
But even though Uber said it had suspended an employee riding in the Volvo, the self-driving car was, in fact, driving itself when it barreled through the red light, according to two Uber employees, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they signed nondisclosure agreements with the company, and internal Uber documents viewed by The New York Times. All told, the mapping programs used by Uber’s cars failed to recognize six traffic lights in the San Francisco area. “In this case, the car went through a red light,” the documents said.
In March 2018, a self-driving Uber hit and killed a woman in Arizona. The company pulled its self-driving vehicles off the roads shortly after the incident.