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California: Self-Driving Uber Cars are ‘Illegal’

“Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit, the company’s launch would have been permissible. However, it is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit.”

Uber Technologies Inc. has reverted to one of its bad-boy habits: ignoring regulators.

California Department of Motor Vehicles officials have now said that the ride-hailing provider is breaking the law by rolling out self-driving cars in San Francisco without their approval.

Uber has tried to reform its image and has worked hard to win over regulators. But like its fellow sharing economy company Airbnb, the company can’t seem to play nice on its home turf. Both companies are headquartered in San Francisco and both have been accused by local officials of breaking the law there.

“Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit prior to (Wednesday), the company’s launch would have been permissible,” Brian Soublet, the chief counsel for the California DMV wrote in a letter to Uber. “However, it is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit. Any action by Uber to continue the operation of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease until Uber complies.”

Uber deployed its self-driving cars knowing that companies like Google, BMW and GM had obtained licenses from the DMV. Tesla Motors has registered, but hasn’t submitted accident reports to the DMV. Uber has said its cars are self-driving, but not autonomous.

Uber didn’t immediately respond to request for comment about the DMV’s letter.

Uber said that its self-driving cars have been on the roads in San Francisco for the past few weeks. On Wednesday, the company began including self-driving vehicles as part of its fleet available for rides. The DMV found out about the program on Monday, Soublet said on a phone call with reporters.

Soublet said that he spoke over the phone on Tuesday morning with Anthony Levandowski, the head of Uber’s self-driving car program. Soublet said he told Levandowski that the company shouldn’t have put cars on the road without a permit. 

On the first day in San Francisco when people could ride in Uber’s self-driving cars, Uber has already acknowledged an incident. A video shows a Volvo equipped with Uber’s self-driving technology running a red light. Uber blamed it on a human.

“This incident was due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” spokesman Matt Wing said in a statement. “This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate.”

Uber’s self-driving cars have two humans involved, one ready to grab the wheel and another monitoring for pedestrians and helping to record incidents. In a ride-along on Tuesday, a driver took control of the vehicle more than a dozen times in less than 30 minutes, citing concerns including proximity to a pedestrian and worry about creating gridlock by entering an already crowded intersection. 

It’s not clear what the DMV can actually do to stop Uber. Soublet was mum as to what action the agency might take if Uber continues to defy its order. “I’m not going to lay out what we will do,” Soublet said. “We are going to explore what all of our legal options are.”

Soublet said the rules were ultimately meant to reassure the public that their roads are safe.

“One of the biggest issues with the adoption of autonomous technology is people have to be comfortable with it,” Soublet said. “The technology has the promise of saving lives, and we’ve got to make sure.”

By Eric Newcomer

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