Uber announced it was grounding its self-driving cars after one of them collided with another car in Tempe, Arizona on Saturday and rolled onto its side. Neither the other car's driver nor the human standby driver in the self-driving car was injured (there was no one else in the car). Arizona police are blaming the incident on the human driver, who, they say, failed to yield to the Uber car. Still, the company says it will stop testing cars in Arizona until its investigation is complete. It is also grounding its test cars in California and Pittsburgh at least through the weekend and possibly longer, according to an Uber spokesperson.

To say this happened at a bad time for Uber would be an understatement. Here's just some of what the company was dealing with before the accident:

1. Uber got into a legal tug-of-war with California over a $150 permit.

Back in December, the company began testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco. The DMV contacted Uber to tell the company it needed a $150 permit for such testing. Rather than pay up, Uber got into a lengthy debate with the state in which Anthony Levandowski, vice president at Uber's Advanced Technologies Group (and founder of the self-driving startup Otto that Uber acquired) argued Uber wasn't actually testing "autonomous vehicles" because all its vehicles had human drivers aboard and would for the foreseeable future. But that makes Uber no different from Google, GM, and Ford, all of which are testing self-driving cars in California--and got permits to do so. All self-driving cars tested in California or anywhere else to date have been required to have human standby drivers along.

2. Then one of its cars ran a red light.

Worse, it was caught on video doing it. Uber at first claimed the human driver had been in control when that happened, but reporters at The New York Times obtained internal documents showing that the car failed to recognize the light. After the event, California put its foot down and barred Uber from further self-driving tests. That's why it was testing in Arizona, which doesn't require permits.

3. Meanwhile, engineers are leaving in droves.

At least 20 autonomous driving engineers have left Uber since November, according to Recode. Some arrived with Otto and may have wanted to work at a startup, but Recode reports what one source calls a "mini civil war" between engineers who arrived with Otto and those who were hired by Uber. Uber, of course, has promised to clean up its corporate culture after a spate of bad publicity about sexual harassment and a damning video of CEO Travis Kalanick cursing out a driver. Culture clashes are a well-known risk when companies merge, and Uber's culture sounds like it's particularly difficult to merge with.

4. Uber got sued by Alphabet's self-driving company, Waymo.

Just a month ago, Waymo, the Alphabet self-driving company spun off from Google, filed an injunction against Uber. It turns out that before founding Otto and then being acquired by Uber, Levandowski worked for Waymo, and, according to its filing, downloaded 14,000 highly confidential files--a whopping 10 gigs of information on core self-driving technology.

5. The technology isn't really working anyway.

The Arizona crash may not be the self-driving car's fault, but as the California red light incident shows, these cars aren't ready for prime time. Recode obtained documents that show Uber's self-driving cars require the human standby driver to take control an average 10 times for every 8 miles of driving. Self-driving cars are most likely safer than human drivers, as Wired transportation writer Alex Davies argued after the crash. But it seems unlikely that a self-driving car requiring human intervention every few minutes is upping the safety quotient very much.

The one thing that's sure is that Uber's dream to eventually dispatch driverless cars, upping its profits and eliminating hassles over employment law, is very far away from coming true. Perhaps even further after Saturday.

Published on: Mar 26, 2017
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