DMV Orders Uber's Self-Driving Cars Off S.F. Streets

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A test vehicle in Uber's self-driving car fleet explored San Francisco's streets in October.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Update, 3:30 p.m. Thursday: California regulators are meeting privately with officials from Uber to hammer home their demand that the ride-service company immediately stop picking up San Francisco passengers in self-driving cars -- or face legal action.

Safety was sure to be front and center: Dash cam video posted online showed a self-driving Uber run a red light Wednesday, the same day the company launched the pilot program with several Volvo SUVs.

Publicly, both sides have dug into opposing positions. The state insists Uber must shut down the new self-driving service until it obtains a special permit for testing on public roads, while Uber says the cars are exempt from the permit requirement because they have a backup driver behind the wheel who must monitor the car's performance.

Uber attributed the red light infraction to "human error" and said the driver had been suspended.


Update, 10:30 a.m. Thursday: The California Department of Motor Vehicles has ordered Uber to halt use of self-driving vehicles, a service the company launched in San Francisco early Wednesday.

In a letter sent Wednesday afternoon to Anthony Levandowski, the chief of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet noted the company did not seek the required state permit for autonomous vehicles. He said the agency is prepared to go to court if Uber fails to immediately pull its self-driving cars -- a group of Volvo XC90s -- off the road.

"It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit," Soublet wrote.

In announcing the launch of the self-driving cars, Uber conceded it had not sought a state permit. The company said that's because its vehicles, which carry a human operator on board to intervene in emergencies, don't meet the state's strict definition of autonomous vehicles.

In a blog post, Levandowski also argued that the state should not stand in the way of its experimental vehicles.

Soublet's letter made it clear the DMV disagrees.

"If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action, including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief," the letter said.

Uber had no immediate comment on the DMV's letter.

Thursday morning, the DMV said it had not heard from Uber and that no meetings had been set up with the company to discuss the self-driving cars.

Original post (Wednesday): The next chapter of humanity's Uber future is dawning, complete with a hint of the regulatory controversy the ride-service company is known for.

Self-driving Uber vehicles have been sighted on San Francisco streets since at least October, working on mapping and refining technology launched in Pittsburgh late last summer, and on Wednesday the company announced self-driving Volvo XC90 SUVs will be picking up passengers in the city.

If you're an UberX customer, you'll be alerted through the ride service's app if a self-driving vehicle has been dispatched to pick you up. You can opt for a standard ride, with driver, if the self-driving thing doesn't appeal to you.

The company says the ride experience will be a little different from its standard UberX service: Passengers won't be able to change destinations once a trip starts, for instance, and the Volvos come with an interior camera system to record customers so the company can "learn more about how we can improve the self-driving experience for our riders."

The camera system will also reportedly allow passengers to take selfies of themselves to share with the social media universe.

The cars aren't truly driverless: A human operator is on board during the service and sits in the driver's seat, making sure the automated system behaves itself.

The launch, coming amid complaints from city officials that tens of thousands of ride-service cars are adding to traffic congestion, was accompanied by a video showing an idyllic, gridlock-free San Francisco (with a cameo appearance from Sausalito).


So after looking at the video -- music by Chicago's GoldFord, by the way -- what's the controversy?

It's not clear that Uber, famous for not asking regulators' permission or forgiveness when it wants to do something on the public byways, has gotten an OK from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to run its self-driving service here.

The New York Times summarizes the issue and Uber's stance:

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s DMV definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

The DMV, which has granted permits to Google, General Motors and Tesla among others to test autonomous vehicles in the state, issued a statement in response to questions about Uber's self-driving service:

"The California DMV encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars. We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested. Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same."

In a blog post published Wednesday, Anthony Levandowski, the chief of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, argued that the state should get on board with the company's program:

... There is a more fundamental point — how and when companies should be able to engineer and operate self-driving technology. We have seen different approaches to this question. Most states see the potential benefits, especially when it comes to road safety. And several cities and states have recognized that complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation. Pittsburgh, Arizona, Nevada and Florida in particular have been leaders in this way, and by doing so have made clear that they are pro technology. Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world’s dynamism, will take a similar view.

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press.