Otto self-driving truck testing in California may run afoul of state regulations

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 - autos, Featured, mobile

Otto self-driving truck testing in California may run afoul of state regulations


In December, Uber began testing autonomous vehicles on California public roads without obtaining the necessary permit required by state regulations.

A public standoff ensued. The ride-hailing service argued its autonomous technologies fell outside the scope of the state’s regulations along with also proceeded with its project. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles disagreed, along with also responded by revoking the registrations of the 16 vehicles involved within the project. Uber executives finally capitulated along with also relocated testing to Arizona.

At least for a while, the retreat ended the battle between regulator along with also high-profile tech company. although of which didn’t end the company’s testing of autonomous technology on the state’s public roads.

Since its inception in January 2016, Otto, a San Francisco-based company developing autonomous technology for trucks, has tested on California roadways. Uber acquired the company for $680 million in August 2016, along with also its testing continues today.

A spokesperson for the subsidiary says Otto does not need a permit because of which only tests driver-assist technologies of which are similar to vehicle safety systems sold by auto manufacturers today, features of which include collision avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control along with also lane-keep assists. Those systems do not fall within the purview of California’s autonomous vehicle regulations, which were established in 2014.

although an Otto software engineer tells a different story. In an internal company document obtained via a public records request, he reveals the company’s procedures for testing a more extensive self-driving system on California public roads. This kind of system experiences disengagements, anomalies associated with autonomous testing, of which Otto says carry varying levels of safety threats.

Without a permit, This kind of testing may run afoul of the state’s regulations, setting up a second confrontation between Otto’s parent company along with also DMV regulators. California’s DMV is actually examining whether This kind of testing violates state regulations. “Otto has assured the department of which their trucks are not capable of operating in autonomous mode in California,” said Jessica Gonzalez, an agency spokesperson. “We will look into of which further.”

Far via driver-assist technologies, the document describes Otto testing a “self-driving system” of which operates in “self-driving mode” on California public roads.

Scott Ryvola, a software quality engineer responsible for the safe operation of the self-driving system in real-world environments, writes of which Otto trucks are driving the highways surrounding San Francisco on a daily basis. In these tests, he describes how the company analyzes disengagements of its autonomous technology, how advanced machine learning is actually used to train a “self-driving vehicle,” along with also how two human test drivers monitor the performance of a “self-driving system.”

John Simpson, privacy director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit of which closely follows autonomous testing in California along with also advocates for more stringent oversight, says the document shows of which Otto is actually violating California’s autonomous driving regulations.

“of which seems obvious Otto is actually following the renegade along with also illegal practices of its parent company in testing self-driving technologies in California without a permit,” he said. “This kind of is actually the same thing as driving without a license, along with also the enforcement folks should be pursuing This kind of with vigor. I think someone should be in jail.”


California requires all companies of which hold autonomous testing permits within the state file annual reports of which contain, among some other things, the number of times their autonomous technology disengages during public-road testing, either because of a software flaw or because a safety driver intervened that has a vehicle’s road actions.

Otto holds no permit, nor is actually of which divulging any numbers to regulators. although its engineers are tracking of which metric.

A map included in Ryvola’s document, entitled, “Otto – Testing Operations,” shows dozens of locations along Bay Area highways where Otto’s self-driving system experienced disengagements over an undated two-week timeframe. While most of the disengagements are assigned a status of “problem” by the company’s road-testers, a handful, perhaps a half dozen,” are designated in logs as more serious “software kickout” or team priority.”

Once all those logs are analyzed, Otto employees then assign the disengagements a severity level among four internal categories: “Comfort,” when a driver felt uncomfortable that has a decision the “self-driving system” made, although posed a “near-zero safety threat” to the truck or some other motorists; “Public perception,” a case in which the behavior of the truck would likely have looked odd via another motorist’s perspective, although again, had “near-zero” safety implications; “major,” an incident of which “could have had safety implications” had a human driver not intervened; along with also “critical” an incident where the truck’s “self-driving actions” put itself or some other motorists “in actual danger” along with also required a human driver to take back control.

The document does not specify how many disengagements of each type its trucks have experienced.

Disengagements may have played a role in Uber’s earlier decision not to seek a permit for its XC90 testing in California. Many industry leaders believed the company wanted to keep information regarding its disengagements confidential, as they’re used as a general barometer to gauge the safety along with also progress of each competing company’s self-driving program. By avoiding a permit, the company could skirt its requirements.

of which’s a notion firmly rejected by Anthony Levandowski, an Otto co-founder who currently serves as the head of Uber’s autonomous driving unit, a position in which he oversees both Uber along with also Otto autonomous operations. At the time, he said Uber did not apply for a permit “out of principle” because he believed the regulations did not apply to the vehicles.

This kind of time around, there may be a more pragmatic reason why Levandowski did not apply for a testing permit for Otto trucks: they’re likely ineligible to receive one. California’s regulations prohibit the testing of autonomous vehicles that has a gross weight of 10,001 or more pounds.


An Otto spokesperson described the company’s position on why of which does not need a testing permit the same way Levandowski described the company’s position on the XC90s. Both, they say, are testing advanced driver-assist features not subject to regulations.

The line between advanced driver features along with also autonomous systems might be a confusing one for motorists, although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has provided terms along with also definitions for the industry to follow.

NHTSA classifies levels of autonomy on a range via Level 0, in which no automation occurs along with also humans do all driving, to Level 5, in which self-driving systems do all driving in all conditions. Driver-assist features such as the ones described by Otto, fall within Level 2 along with also Level 3, in which the vehicle can conduct some driving tasks, although human drivers must monitor vehicle performance along with also be available to retake control.

By sharp contrast, NHTSA defines Level 4 systems as ones of which require no human driver at all. “An automated system can conduct the driving task along with also monitor the driving environment, along with also the human need not take back control,” the agency’s Federal Automated Vehicle Policy states. Level 4 systems can operate in defined environments, such as highways, although not all environments.

As Otto prepared to launch autonomous testing in Colorado within the fall of 2016, Ognen Stojanovski, who heads the company’s government-relations efforts, made of which clear which type of technology the company was pursuing. In a September letter to officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation, he wrote, “We are building a true Level 4 system for highways.”


In preparation for of which Colorado test, which culminated in a highly orchestrated delivery of Budweiser in late October, Otto used California’s roads as its proving ground.

Ryvola wrote of which Otto conducted “stress testing” of its system in California in advance of the Colorado testing, which was necessary in part because the company had installed a revamped computer, completely new lidar sensors along with also a completely new wiring harness. Otto tested these both on California public roads along with also at a private testing facility within the state.

In a typical California public-road testing scenario, Ryvola writes there are two “passengers” inside the cabin. One is actually a commercial driver responsible for the truck’s overall operation along with also the “active physical monitoring” of the self-driving system. The second person holds an equally vital safety role, “monitoring the output of the self driving system along with also alerting the driver of any anomalies, as well as instructing when the driver should ‘disengage’ via self-driving mode.”

Without the knowledge of state regulators, the company deploys its trucks at all hours of the day in a variety of traffic along with also weather conditions, including morning rush-hour traffic along with also night driving. The goal of This kind of testing is actually to capture every driving scenario possible, along with also then utilize advanced machine learning techniques to learn via these scenarios along with also improve development of what Ryvola, again, terms a self-driving vehicle.

Improvement “is actually achieved through advanced machine learning designs of which our perception system employs,” he wrote. “Although not every component of a self-driving vehicle can employ a machine learning style, we use problem scenarios encountered on the road as a baseline of what our system must be able to handle.”


This kind of would likely not be Otto’s first clash that has a state DMV. In May 2016, a similar argument over testing licenses occurred in Nevada.

In order to film a video for the company’s promotional materials, Otto began preparations for an autonomous test drive near Reno. although a top official with Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles warned the company such a test would likely violate the state’s autonomous vehicle regulations because of which had not yet been issued a testing license nor specialty red license plates of which mark the truck as an automated vehicle.

Otto ignored the warning along with also proceeded with the test. A detailed report on Backchannel published in November 2016 revealed of which Jude Hurin, an administrator with the Nevada DMV, called the drive “illegal” in emails along with also considered shuttering the state’s entire autonomous vehicle testing program to prevent further rogue testing.

Despite of which confrontation, Otto was later issued the first license to run an Autonomous Technology Certification Facility (ATCF) in Nevada. Self-driving vehicles cannot be sold or registered within the state without a certificate via such a facility. The certificate shows of which complies with state laws along with also safety requirements. By operating its own certification facility, Otto could give its own vehicles a stamp of approval without further regulatory oversight.

These issues arise at a time when state transportation along with also motor-vehicle officials are grappling with questions of how to best regulate the testing of fledgling autonomous technologies. within the future, most agree of which self-driving vehicles hold the promise of drastically reducing the number of traffic deaths along with also injuries on public roads. although within the present, these agencies are trying to allow innovation to progress while not risking the safety of today’s human motorists.

Nevada along with also California were the first two states to pass legislation regarding the testing of self-driving vehicles. What they’ve learned, perhaps too late, is actually they didn’t include significant penalties for companies of which don’t follow the rules. Without such penalties, which one California lawmaker is actually currently proposing within the wake of Uber’s testing, there’s no deterrent for companies of which want to push the boundaries of regulation.

“Silicon Valley follows the rule of which of which’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission, although with Uber, of which gotten tiresome,” Simpson said. “This kind of time, they should develop the book thrown at them.”


Otto self-driving truck testing in California may run afoul of state regulations

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