Driverless Cars

Uber’s Self-Driving Cars In San Francisco Rankle California’s DMV

Uber decided it didn't need to get an autonomous vehicle permit before rolling out its new self-driving Volvos

Driverless Cars
Dec 15, 2016 at 11:20 AM ET

Uber has once again decided to flout the rules.

Three months after debuting its self-driving cars on the mean streets of Pittsburgh, Uber added a second city to its driverless car roster: San Francisco. The company announced in a statement on Wednesday that those who request an UberX, the app’s most economical option, may well end up in a self-driving car (with an Uber engineer in the front seat to take over the wheel if necessary). Or not, if the California Department of Motor Vehicles has its way.

Shortly after Uber’s announcement, the DMV ordered them to stop until and unless Uber can follow the rules and apply for the necessary permits just like everyone else.

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“We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested,” the DMV said in a statement to CNN. “Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.” The CA DMV even made a section on its website just for self-driving cars.

Uber seemed to anticipate this reaction in its announcement, saying that it “doesn’t believe” it needs a permit for the cars because someone would always be in the driver’s seat ready to step in if necessary, making them not truly autonomous. And, to make what Uber phrased a “more fundamental point,” all of these “complex rules and requirements” were getting in the way of innovation.

San Francisco’s traffic police apparently weren’t even aware that the things existed until the San Francisco Examiner alerted them that two self-driving Uber cars were caught on video and on camera running red lights on Wednesday in two separate incidents. Notably, one was caught on a taxi dashcam by a driver who arguably has every reason to want Uber’s experiment to fail, and was no doubt thrilled to have such evidence, and made sure post it on YouTube as soon as possible. Uber expertly blamed the red light run on “human error,” and said it was just one more reason why humans needed to stop driving cars as soon as possible and without stopping to follow pesky DMV rules, for the safety of everyone on the road.

At least, that was the gist of it. The full statement, according to TechCrunch, was: “This incident was due to human error. This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers. This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate.”

As the Associated Press explains, without a permit, Uber avoids having to publicly report any crashes or times that a human had to take over control of the car, as well as a $150 fee and proof of insurance.

When it comes to things like rule and regulations, Uber typically finds some kind of loophole (usually it goes with the “we’re a technology company, not a transportation company” defense) to explain why it doesn’t have to follow them, be it with laws governing autonomous vehicles, car insurancethe taxi industry, disabilities, or employment.

The DMV sent Uber a letter, obtained by TechCrunch, threatening legal action and an injunction if Uber did not remove the cars from the road. By Wednesday night, hours after the DMV’s order, Uber appeared to be digging in its heels: The self-driving Ubers were still on the road.