By Matt Drange and Alan Ohnsman
California regulators are preparing to conduct a site inspection of the San Francisco headquarters of Uber’s autonomous truck unit, formerly known as Otto, to determine whether the company broke state law when it tested driverless trucks on public highways without permission.
The unscheduled visit, which officials from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles are coordinating with the California Highway Patrol, is to “see the capabilities of Otto’s trucks in person,” a DMV spokeswoman said. The inspection comes months after the publication of an internal Otto document from 2016 detailing the company’s testing procedures for its self-driving semi-trucks.
The document, which describes how “Otto trucks drive the highways surrounding San Francisco on a daily basis,” appears to contradict what Otto told state regulators about its program at a Feb. 24 meeting. At that time, Otto told the DMV that its trucks were not being operated autonomously, according to agency officials. Otto’s description of testing procedures in a document prepared for officials in Colorado, however, seems at odds with this assessment. The document details how technicians are to engage autonomous software and disengage when conditions are too complicated for the system to handle safely. Industry experts and California officials who reviewed the document agreed that it described autonomous driving.
The discrepancy between what Otto explained in writing to Colorado officials last year and what it subsequently told California officials is the primary reason for the upcoming inspection in San Francisco. “The purpose of the site visit is to gain a better understanding of the technology and how it operates,” DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez told Forbes. “Based on DMV’s meeting with the company earlier this year, they conveyed that the technology operating on California roads is not autonomous. This meeting will be a follow-up to that.”
Uber’s automated truck testing is still based in San Francisco, a company spokeswoman said, adding that the semis “mostly drive close to home.”
It’s unclear what statutory authority, if any, California officials have to punish the company if it determines regulations were violated. State law prohibits testing of autonomous vehicles that weigh more than 10,000 pounds on public roads. This means that if California deem Otto’s trucks autonomous, any testing of the vehicles on public roads would be illegal.
“We keep the CA DMV abreast of our activities and have had multiple discussions with them regarding our operations,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a written statement provided to Forbes. “The trucks cannot drive themselves in California in the manner that they did in Colorado; we deliberately use only driver-assist tech in California. This technology is the essential foundation upon which autonomous technologies are built, but is not autonomous in itself.”
Should the DMV find that Otto broke the law, it wouldn’t be the first time that testing of autonomous cars overseen by Anthony Levandowski drew the attention of state regulators.
Uber violated DMV rules in December when Levandowski, Otto’s cofounder who, until recently, was the head of Uber’s autonomous tech development effort, refused to apply for $150 test permits for driverless cars the company was testing in San Francisco. The program was quickly shut down when the DMV revoked the registration for Uber’s Volvo test SUVs. Uber applied for permits following the fiasco and resumed limited testing in the city earlier this year.
The 2016 document detailing California test procedures was prepared for state officials in Colorado as Otto looked to gain approval of its first paid project: a well-publicized beer run, with one of its autonomous trucks hauling a full load of freshly brewed Budweiser.
Otto’s trucks are equipped with a visual perception system that feeds data to an onboard computer, helping to continually upgrade the autonomous drive system through regimented machine learning, according to the internal document. Test trucks have a licensed commercial driver at the wheel available to take control whenever necessary, as well as a “co-driver” in the front passenger seat tasked with monitoring system data. When needed, the co-driver is to alert the driver to “…’disengage’ from self-driving mode.”
“Drivers can disengage by grabbing the steering wheel, applying the brake, applying the throttle, flipping an ‘engage’ button on the dash, or hitting a large red button next to the steering wheel,” according to the document. “In an emergency, any one of these inputs instantly restore full driving control to the driver.”
California regulations define autonomous vehicles as having “technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” Uber has argued that this description is vague and doesn’t apply to its test vehicles, as it has technicians available to take over control at any time.
Otto’s critics say the upcoming visit from Sacramento regulators is the latest example of the company acting as though it’s above the law.
“I believe they are flagrantly flouting the law. It’s absolutely clear they are testing robot trucks,” said John Simpson, director of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog. Simpson added that the parallels between Uber’s actions and Otto’s are unmistakable. “What Uber tried to argue is that it wasn’t technically autonomous because they had a driver [in the vehicle]. But they are telling the world they are testing self-driving technology. It’s just bogus.”
That the interpretation of state law varies on who you ask is a broader issue persistent among autonomous car technology, said David, Kidd, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“This points to one of the concerns we raised in trying to get a handle on this technology as it’s being tested on actual roads. That is that these companies may or may not define driving technology the same way as a regulatory body or each other,” Kidd said. “Sometimes people may use that as a way to justify testing without permitting or to do it without notifying regulatory bodies.”
It isn’t just DMV that wants to know more about Otto’s technology. Otto’s testing of its trucks appears to be at odds with what company executives told state officials from other agencies as well.
“They have indicated that they aren’t doing driverless technology in California,” said Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for the California State Transportation Agency. “According to Otto, the technology being used in California is consistent with lane-keep and technology of that sort.” (Lane-keep is a safety technology that’s become standard on many new passenger vehicles, relying on cameras or lasers to monitor lane lines and prevent drivers from drifting across lanes.)
Otto was co-founded in early 2016 by Levandowski, the former Google engineer whose work prior to leaving that company is at the heart of a trade secret theft lawsuit filed against Uber and Otto in February. Uber reportedly paid $680 million for Otto, which developed self-driving hardware and software kits for commercial trucks.
Alphabet subsidiary Waymo filed suit against Otto and Uber, alleging that Levandowski stole trade secrets which Uber then copied while designing its own technology. Uber officials have privately acknowledged that the company’s autonomous driving technology lags behind Google’s. The lawsuit was filed on Feb. 23, the day before DMV regulators met with Otto to discuss the extent of its driverless technology.
Separately, Otto was recently rebranded as Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group (Uber ATG) following a trademark infringement suit brought by Otto Motors, a Canadian maker of autonomous vehicles for use in warehouses and industrial facilities. It is unclear whether Levandowski conducted the basic due diligence when forming Otto that would have identified a competing company with a similar name.