CPUC Regulators Still Hashing Out More Rules for Uber and Lyft

Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), told a Senate committee that no other state agency wants to regulate Uber and Lyft. (Michael Short/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The California Public Utilities Commission met today to talk about the latest phase of regulations for ride services, just two days after its president told a state Senate committee hearing that no state agency -- including his, apparently -- wants to oversee Uber and Lyft.

The commissioners were scheduled to vote today on tightening ride-service guidelines, but postponed the decision until April 7 so that regulators could clear up some issues over leased vehicles, get more input on fingerprint background checks and clarify rules for transporting unaccompanied minors.

Commissioner Liane Randolph, charged with drafting the latest regulations, said she needed clarity over differing state codes about leased vehicles. Uber has a leasing program for its drivers, and Lyft recently announced it is partnering with GM on a lease program.

The original regulations were adopted by the CPUC in 2013. The new rules being considered would toughen restrictions on vehicle inspections, requiring that ride-service vehicles be inspected every year, or every 50,000 miles, at a state-licensed facility. Inspection records for each vehicle would need to be maintained for up to three years. The regulations would also sanction ride-service carpools.

Randolph said regulators needed more time to gather evidence about whether all transportation network company drivers should be required to do fingerprint background checks.

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Taxicab operators have argued vehemently that ride service-drivers should undergo the same kind of background checks they are required to do. But Uber has argued that no background check is foolproof, even though law enforcement officials have said fingerprint checks are the "gold standard."

In Los Angeles today, city officials  -- including the mayor -- sent a letter to the CPUC asking for permission to implement a pilot fingerprint background check program.

“A fingerprinting pilot program makes sense in LA and will help the Public Utilities Commission gather valuable information as it contemplates implementing a more thorough background check program statewide,” said City Councilman Paul Krekorian in a press release.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval suggested the ride-service companies should submit reports on driver suspensions every six months, instead of annually.

"Twelve-month reporting seems like a long period of time because some of these suspensions are for pretty serious issues," said Sandoval.

In response, Randolph said Sandoval's suggestion would be considered.

"Part of the idea on collecting suspensions is not because we're going to be out on the sidewalk looking for suspended drivers. But are we seeing trends?" Randolph said.

Sandoval also expressed concern that some ride-service vehicles are operating with new dealer plates, which could make it difficult to track a driver in a collision.

Sandoval, who was once hit by a driver who had a new dealer plate, said her biggest question was: "Who hit me?" She said she was lucky that the driver did not take off and she was able to get his information.

"That's the big concern, especially when we're requiring (ride-service drivers) not to operate as ordinary citizens, but as TNCs transporting people and also interacting with pedestrians," she said.

The amended rules would also require vehicles to have trade dress, or signs in both the front and back of ride-service vehicles.

The new regulations are being considered at a time when the president of the embattled agency, Michael Picker, has indicated the CPUC is overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, including regulating ride services.

"Maybe somebody else should do it," Picker told the state Senate Committee on Energy, Utilities and Communications Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles Times. "I don’t know who."

Just a week earlier, Picker told an Assembly committee that he's "underwater on a daily basis," and he asked whether ride services should be regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol.

While no other state agency may want to take on the job, one local agency that has long been strongly advocating for enforcement of ride services is the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. Although the companies won't say how many ride-service vehicles operate in San Francisco, where Uber and Lyft are headquartered, some estimates have put the number at 20,000.