Uber flouts rules with San Francisco self-driving test

Uber says its “cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”

SAN FRANCISCO — Uber continued its aggressive strategy of bucking local laws by launching its self-driving ride-hailing program here last week without California’s permission.

The day after the launch, the California Department of Motor Vehicles sent Uber a letter ordering the company to cease operations until it gets permission to operate the vehicles on public roads. If Uber refuses, the DMV said it would pursue legal action.

Launching in cities before receiving regulatory approval has been characteristic of Uber’s ride-hailing service, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who specializes in self-driving vehicles. In Portland Ore., Uber began operating before the city had amended its taxi regulations to include ride-hailing apps. After pushback from local government, Uber temporarily halted its service, but eventually got approval from local government and had less restrictive regulations than taxi services.

“Uber got to where it is by changing facts on the law and pushing the law to conform to those changed facts,” Walker Smith said.

Uber decided to forgo seeking state licensing for the San Francisco program with California regulators because, the company argued in a blog post, it believes the rules only apply to vehicles that don’t need a person behind the wheel monitoring the drive.

“For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them,” Uber wrote in the blog.

Needed: Permit

California’s DMV said it begs to differ.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” the agency wrote in the letter to Uber. “Any action by Uber to continue the operation of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease until Uber complies.”

The pilot program mixes Volvo XC90 crossovers and Ford Fusion sedans equipped with Uber’s self-driving technology into the pool of vehicles available to customers requesting UberX rides. The vehicles are manned by two Uber engineers, one with hands on the wheel ready to take control, and one recording the vehicle’s performance and initiating maneuvers such as lane changes. Customers who match with a test vehicle have the option to decline the ride for a human-operated vehicle.

An Uber spokeswoman did not respond when asked if the company had ceased its autonomous vehicle testing in San Francisco. However, in its blog post, Uber wrote that a strict regulatory approach could inhibit technological progress.

“Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety,” the company wrote. “Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world’s dynamism, will take a similar view.”

Uber introduced the autonomous vehicle program in September in Pittsburgh, where its Advanced Technologies Group — headed by Anthony Levandowski, co-founder of self-driving truck startup Otto — is headquartered. Uber acquired Otto in August.

On day one of the San Francisco program, a taxi driver caught video of a self-driving Uber running a red light. The video was posted to YouTube, but does not say in what city the video was taken.

While the San Francisco pilot operates similarly to the one in Pittsburgh, it faces a much different regulatory environment. California has one of the strictest regulatory frameworks of the states that have enacted autonomous-vehicle legislation, requiring testing to be supervised on public roads and vehicles to be registered with the DMV to allow for incident reporting. The state defines autonomous technology as having “the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.”

‘Unpleasant conversations’

Walker Smith said California and other states’ autonomous vehicle regulations cover “aspirational” self-driving vehicles, or technology that may not be fully autonomous yet but is being tested with the intention of becoming so. Such policies are built on trust between local government and companies, with the assumption that companies will comply in the interest of acting in the public good, he said.

While Uber could argue that its technology is not autonomous, it’s breaking the regulatory trust with officials for reasons that are unclear, Walker Smith said.

“It doesn’t seem necessary,” he said. “Other companies register and file reports, they don’t like it but they do it. It’s not all that onerous.”

The dispute with the California DMV isn’t Levandowski’s first with state regulators over autonomous-vehicle permits. In May, Otto operated a self-driving truck demonstration in Nevada without registering the vehicle with the state’s DMV. While the run was a violation of Nevada law, the state does not have penalties in place for breaches of its autonomous vehicle regulations.

Walker Smith said, “What Uber is doing is going to change the conversation, and force some unpleasant conversations.”

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