A pilot model of an Uber self-driving car drives down a street in Pittsburgh, Pa. Uber has launched a groundbreaking driverless car service in the city. | Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images

Aldermen want to ban driverless cars in pre-emptive strike

Two of Chicago’s most powerful aldermen want to put the brakes on driverless cars just as Uber is putting the pedal to the metal on that shift in other major cities.

Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) and Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th) joined forced on an ordinance Wednesday that would stop Uber dead in its tracks — before a single driverless vehicle hits the road in Chicago.

Burke and Beale are the most powerful City Council allies of a taxicab industry fighting for survival in the Uber era.

They branded their ordinance a “pre-emptive strike” that follows Uber’s launch of a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh — though those cars do have what Uber calls “a safety driver” in the front seat — “because they require human intervention in many conditions,” according to the company website.

The general public would also be prohibited from operating autonomous vehicles.

“We want to make sure that we don’t let this thing get out of hand before it even gets started,” Beale said Wednesday.

“A lot of these industries have a tendency to start rolling these things out, and then we end up having to play catchup to try to get a handle on ’em before all the technology has been vetted, before it’s been thoroughly investigated and researched.”

Beale categorically denied that the proposal to ban driverless cars was the latest in a series of efforts to save a taxicab industry that has lost huge chunks of its business to Uber and Lyft.

“We want to make sure everything is truly vetted and researched and is safe and secure before we start having any accidents and put people in harm’s way,” Beale said.

“It’s totally about safety. There was already a scenario where a gentleman got killed because the [driverless] car did not recognize a white truck. It went right up under the white truck. Those are the kinds of things we don’t want happening in Chicago. . . . They still have kinks they need to work out. We just want to make sure that nobody is injured and everybody is safe before this new technology is adopted in Chicago.”

In a press release, Burke said, “We do not want the streets of Chicago to be used as an experiment that will no doubt come with its share of risks, especially for pedestrians. . . . No technology is 100 percent safe.”

Uber spokesman Brooke Anderson could not be reached for comment about the proposal to ban driverless cars.

The ordinance introduced Wednesday at the City Council meeting defines “autonomous technology” as any technology with the “capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.” Violators would face $500 fines for each offense.

Earlier this year, a divided City Council agreed to license, but not fingerprint, ride-hailing drivers.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose brother is an Uber investor, managed to salvage the hard-fought compromise but only after threatening to adjourn the meeting to prevent one of the taxicab industry’s staunchest supporters from postponing the vote.

Beale had pushed his more rigid licensing ordinance through the Transportation Committee he chairs days before the full Council vote.

Under pressure from the mayor, Beale subsequently agreed to a compromise that would license all Uber and Lyft drivers after a daylong course that could be completed online and background checks performed by the companies with information shared with the city.

That compromise also stipulated there will be no fingerprinting for at least six months.

The hiatus will be used to appoint a commission charged with conducting what Beale calls an “independent study” of the value and fairness of fingerprinting. If the recommendation is to proceed with fingerprinting, it will be done. If not, fingerprinting would be eliminated as a requirement for all city employees, the chairman has said.

Uber and Lyft have threatened to abandon the lucrative Chicago market if aldermen forge ahead with the fingerprinting plan.

The ride-hailing giants maintain that a background check based on FBI fingerprinting would discriminate against minorities who are “far more likely to have an interaction with the criminal justice system,” often for minor, nonviolent offenses for which the charges were dropped but the record has not yet been expunged.

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