Uber Says It Will Keep Operating Self-Driving Cars in San Francisco

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

Uber's self-driving cars will keep ferrying passengers around San Francisco, the ride-hailing company said Friday, despite California regulators threatening legal action if the service is not suspended.

Uber began the pilot project Wednesday with a few Volvo SUVs that are tricked out with a suite of sensors allowing them to steer, brake and accelerate. A person sits behind the wheel, just in case.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles condemned the launch, demanding the company pull the cars unless the state grants a special permit.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee sided with regulators. But showing the level of interest in the technology, the mayor of Beverly Hills on Friday voiced his support for Uber testing without the state permit.

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Officials with Uber and the state have talked several times this week in what the leader of the company's self-driving program described as "frank conversations." Anthony Levandowski's comments in a Friday conference call with reporters show that Uber is not swayed.

State lawyers insist that Uber's cars are "autonomous vehicles" that require a permit to ply public roads.

Levandowski said he respectfully disagrees, arguing Uber does not need the permit that 20 other companies testing the technology in California have gotten because it has backup drivers behind the wheel monitoring the cars. That means the Volvos are not "autonomous vehicles" under the state's definition, he said.

Levandowski likened the Volvos' abilities to those of Tesla cars that have the Autopilot feature allowing them to keep their lane, brake and accelerate without a person touching the wheel. He wondered why the thousands of Teslas on California roads don't need a permit if Uber's cars do.

State officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday. In a letter Wednesday, the DMV wrote, "If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action," without elaborating on what that might entail.