Harry here. Today, senior RSG contributor John Ince takes a look at Uber’s launch of ‘self-driving’ cars in San Francisco, which was anything but smooth. One of their cars promptly ran a red light and it was caught on camera. Also, it turns out Uber failed to register with the DMV despite nearly every other large automaker doing so. We all know that real self-driving cars will hit the roads some day, but it seems like there’s a lot more hype around them than reality these days.
We’ve also have news on Google’s new ridesharing service, an alarming privacy lawsuit against Uber and a story about the ever increasing congestion problem and whether or not Uber and Lyft are making things worse.
Uber’s self-driving cars start picking up passengers in San Francisco [TechCrunch]
Sum and Substance: Uber’s self-driving cars are making the move to San Francisco, in a new expansion of its pilot project with autonomous vehicles that will see Volvo SUVs outfitted with sensors and supercomputers begin picking up passengers in the city.
The autonomous cars won’t operate completely driverless, for the time being – as in Pittsburgh, where Uber launched self-driving Ford Focus vehicles this fall, each SUV will have a safety driver and Uber test engineer onboard to handle manual driving when needed and monitor progress with the tests. But the cars will still be picking up ordinary passengers – any customers who request uberX using the standard consumer-facing mobile app are eligible for a ride in one of the new XC90s operated by Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (ATG).
There’s a difference here beyond the geography; this is the third generation of Uber’s autonomous vehicle, which is distinct from the second-generation Fords that were used in the Pittsburgh pilot. Uber has a more direct relationship with Volvo in turning its new XC90s into cars with autonomous capabilities; the Fords were essentially purchased stock off the line, while Uber’s partnership with Volvo means it can do more in terms of integrating its own sensor array into the ones available on board the vehicle already. …
For the actual rider, there’s an iPad-based interactive display in the rear of the vehicle, which takes over for the mobile app once you’ve actually entered the vehicle and are ready to start your ride. The display guides you through the steps of starting your trip, including ensuring your seat belt is fastened, checking your destination and then setting off on the ride itself.
The iPad-based display also lets you take a selfie and share the image from your ride, which definitely helps Uber promote its efforts, while also helping with the other key goal that the iPad itself seeks to achieve – making riders feel like this tech is both knowable and normal. Public perception remains one of autonomous driving’s highest bars to overcome, along with the tech problem and regulation, and selfies are one seemingly shallow way to legitimately address that. … So how did I feel during my ride? … It felt overall like a system that is making good progress in terms of learning – but one that also still has a long way to go before it can do without its human minders up front.
My Take: The headline is somewhat misleading because these are not self-driving cars. Two Uber employees accompany the passenger at all times. Nevertheless, this is attention grabbing.
However, not all the publicity has been favorable The front page banner headline in the Marin, where I live, read the other day, “DMV, Uber have head-on clash in SF.” The article explains that Uber is operating the vehicles without a permit and various watchdog groups have called for the city of San Francisco to file criminal charges against Uber CEO Travis Kalanick for operating vehicles without a license.
Now Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco has chimed in and ordered Uber to stop. Uber, for the moment, has ignored all these requests, and the story has become yet another black mark against Uber. This kind of publicity can’t be good for the company. What, then, is Uber trying to accomplish with this?
I won’t use the words “PR stunt” because all research proceeds incrementally like this, but publicizing this small step forward as if it’s a major breakthrough smacks of an attempt seize the ongoing narrative about autonomous vehicles. Remember, the winners in ridesharing will likely be the ones with the biggest bank accounts, and publicity like this is sure to get the attention of potential investors who might just be hoping that Uber will take the lead with driverless cars to hopefully start turning a profit.
On a personal note, I passed one of these “self-driving” Uber cars Wednesday night while taking three IT officials to the airport. I asked them whether they would get inside a car that didn’t have somebody sitting in the driver’s seat. Their response was telling – none of the three would do it. I asked why? They all gave good reasons. One said that even though his company is in the IT business, there are always moments during the day or week when computers lose connectivity at the office and email systems freeze up.
The other talked about his TV that pixelates occasionally and said every information source has glitches. It’s one thing to have to wait on email, it’s another if you’re going down the highway at 60 MPH when the information feeding into the car’s computers goes on the blink. He also said he’d heard that one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles ran a red light earlier that day in downtown SF – an incident that apparently was documented by the dash cam on a nearby taxicab and has gone viral on YouTube.
But the most wry comment came in the comments section of the SF Uber/Lyft Facebook group. The driver asked, “Who do you get pissed off at when a self-driving car cuts you off?” Think on that a bit, and then hopefully smile.
Google Said to Plan Ride-Sharing Service With Fiat Chrysler [Bloomberg]
Sum and Substance: Google parent Alphabet Inc. plans to start a ride-sharing service with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NA’s minivans as part of a reorganization of the tech company’s automotive unit, people familiar with the matter said.
Google will deploy a semi-autonomous version of the Chrysler Pacifica minivan that it’s developing with the Italian-American carmaker for the new service as early as the end of 2017, said the people, who asked not to be identified as the matter is private. Alphabet and Fiat Chrysler declined to comment on their plans. The U.S. tech company separated its autonomous vehicle project into a new Alphabet holding company called Waymo and said the “next step will be to let people use our vehicles to do everyday things like run errands, commute to work, or get safely home after a night on the town.”
John Krafcik, chief executive officer of Waymo, said the company is adding new sensors to Chrysler vehicles now, but didn’t comment on how program has evolved. “FCA has been a wonderful partner,” he added at an event in San Francisco on Tuesday.
For the service, Google will need more than the 100 Pacificas it agreed to develop with Fiat Chrysler in May, the people said. The companies announced plans that month to create about 100 prototypes based on the Chrysler Pacifica hybrid-powered minivan for Google to test its self-driving technology. Fiat Chrysler, the first major automaker to strike a deal with Google for self-driving vehicles, has favored cooperating with tech giants to navigate potentially profound changes in the auto industry. The manufacturer will reveal a fully electric vehicle based on the Pacifica at the CES electronics show in Las Vegas next month as it pushes for a role in the car industry’s shift toward battery-powered models, people familiar with the matter said last week.
My Take: Remember, Google parent Alphabet has much deeper pockets than Uber, and Alphabet generates real profits to the tune of almost $20 billion a year, even after investing over $3.5 billion in research at its Google X labs. Uber’s impressive finance arm has “only” raised $13 billion or so during its lifetime – and is now burning through investor capital at an unsustainable rate of $2 billion/year. So if I were placing bets on the future of driverless cars or ridesharing, I’d go with Google / Alphabet / Waymo. Their moves have been more deliberate, and less attention grabbing. The fact that Uber has stolen the spotlight and seized the narrative on driverless cars doesn’t necessarily translate into engineering progress or prowess – which, in the final analysis, is what matters.
Uber said it protects you from spying. Security sources say otherwise [RevealNews.org]
Sum and Substance: For anyone who’s snagged a ride with Uber, Ward Spangenberg has a warning: Your personal information is not safe. Internal Uber employees helped ex-boyfriends stalk their ex-girlfriends and searched for the trip information of celebrities such as Beyoncé, the company’s former forensic investigator said. “Uber’s lack of security regarding its customer data was resulting in Uber employees being able to track high profile politicians, celebrities, and even personal acquaintances of Uber employees, including ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, and ex-spouses,” Spangenberg wrote in a court declaration, signed in October under penalty of perjury.
After news broke two years ago that executives were using the company’s “God View” feature to track customers in real time without their permission, Uber insisted it had strict policies that prohibited employees from accessing users’ trip information with limited exceptions. But five former Uber security professionals told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting that the company continued to allow broad access even after those assurances. Thousands of employees throughout the company, they said, could get details of where and when each customer travels. Those revelations could be especially relevant now that Uber has begun collecting location information even after a trip ends.
Ward Spangenberg, who was hired by Uber in March 2015, says he frequently objected to what he believed were reckless and illegal practices. Spangenberg was fired and is now suing the ride-hailing behemoth.
Spangenberg is suing the San Francisco-based ride-hailing behemoth for age discrimination (he’s 45) and whistleblower retaliation. He has worked information security jobs for a variety of tech companies. Uber tasked him with helping develop security procedures and responding to problems from around the world. In addition to the security vulnerabilities, Spangenberg said Uber deleted files it was legally obligated to keep. And during government raids of foreign Uber offices, he said the company remotely encrypted its computers to prevent authorities from gathering information. After beginning in March 2015, Spangenberg said he frequently objected to what he believed were reckless and illegal practices, and Uber fired him 11 months later.
Michael Sierchio, a tech industry veteran who was a senior security engineer at Uber from early 2015 until June of this year, agreed that Uber had particularly weak protections for private information. “When I was at the company, you could stalk an ex or look up anyone’s ride with the flimsiest of justifications,” he said. “It didn’t require anyone’s approval.”
This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
My Take: If true, these are very serious allegations. Uber has a ton of data and they are the sole proprietor of all that data – with no regulatory oversight whatsoever. Tracking the movements of former girlfriends or boyfriends, while disturbing, is hopefully innocuous in the larger scheme of things. But if thousands of employees have access to that data, it also means that they could be doing much more nefarious things. The article/lawsuit also calls into question the veracity of Uber executives and PR team, which has long been a cloud hanging over the company. The fact that not one, but several, former employees have come forward making the same allegations does not bode well for the company.
SF blasts Uber, Lyft for downtown traffic congestion [SF Examiner]
Sum and Substance: Ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft are being blamed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for a lack of regulation that has led to increased traffic in The City.
The potential 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers circling San Francisco streets for commute fares are gumming up city traffic, according to transit officials. In a recent state regulatory filing, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency took the California Public Utilities Commission — which is tasked with regulating ride-hail companies — to task for failing to reasonably limit the industry’s explosive growth.
… The SFMTA’s regulatory filing mainly concerned the legality of Uber and Lyft drivers using rental cars as personal vehicles to drive passengers, an ongoing debate at the CPUC that the commission may vote to resolve this month. The SFMTA argued that since state regulators and the CPUC are moving to make rented and leased vehicles legal for Uber and Lyft drivers, any legal distinction separate from for-hire limos and taxis is essentially bunk. And the lack of ride-hail regulation has led to San Francisco congestion, the SFMTA argued.
“For example, in San Francisco alone an estimated number of 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers now operate in The City,” the SFMTA wrote, citing a recent San Francisco Examiner article that revealed data showing the number of ride-hail drivers. That far surpasses San Francisco’s 1,800 taxi cabs, the SFMTA wrote.
My Take: No question here: traffic in San Francisco and the surrounding area has gotten horrendous, so much so that I seldom turn on the app until the evening commute. Last night about 10:30 PM, while driving down 101 to the airport, a passenger told me that earlier in the day – at around 4 PM on the same stretch of 15 miles taking us 20 minutes – took him two and a half hours. And that was normal traffic for that time of day – no accident or special circumstances. Quite frankly, I don’t know how other drivers caught in that kind of traffic for over 10 hours a day do it. There are potentially 45,000 Uber/Lyft drivers on the roads in SF vicinity now. Folks, it’s time to take stock here and figure out a better way. Can you believe that with all the brainpower here in the Bay Area tech community, no one has stepped forward to address this problem?
Readers, what do you think of this week’s round up, and would you personally get in a self-driving car?
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-John @ RSG
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