DMV to Uber: Halt your Self-Driving Cars

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is telling Uber that it “must cease” its autonomous vehicle experiment on San Francisco streets and a get a permit, threatening possible legal action if the company doesn’t comply.

The Associated Press reports that California regulators sent San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. a letter saying while the regulator “encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars,” doing it without a permit is illegal. So far, 20 other companies have received permits for testing self-driving vehicles from the DMV.

Uber’s response so far has been defiant, saying that since its cars can’t drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person,” they don’t technically qualify as autonomous.

“This is where science and logic needs to trump blind compliance,” Anthony Levandowski, the leader of Uber’s self-driving program told the AP.

Uber’s history of skirting regulations have turned costly in the past. According to The Guardian, the ride-sharing company has had to pay out more than $160 million in lawsuits since 2009.

Grayson Brulte, an innovation consultant and co-chair of the City of Beverly Hills Mayor’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force said that Uber’s move to ignore the DMV rule was calculated and – in his mind – was meant to push the conversation about autonomous vehicle regulations into the public sphere.

“Uber is being Uber, that’s what it comes down to. They’re forcing the hand of the regulators and the DMV,” Brulte said. “The DMV can force them to cease and desist and the big question will be how hard Uber will push back.”

Brulte added that he thinks the tight regulations over self-driving vehicles in California have stymied innovation in the state and could lead to a delay in the ultimate goal of lowering deaths from vehicle collisions to zero.

“What a lot of companies are asking themselves is ‘do we want to operate under these regulatory environments or we want to go to other states where they’re embracing innovation,” Brulte said.

The company’s San Francisco test drive of its autonomous vehicle technology is its second go-around with its fleet of self-driving Volvos. Earlier this year the company piloted its self-driving technology on the streets of Pittsburgh.

That go-around did not require a permit since the rides were free and the company wasn’t considered to be “offering transportation services to the general public for compensation,” according to the Pennsylvania Utilities Commission.

Uber said it was rolling out its self-driving Volvos as a way to build out its offerings for riders and help its autonomous software learn new terrain.

“Starting today, riders who request an uberX in San Francisco will be matched with a Self-Driving Uber if one is available. Expanding our self-driving pilot allows us to continue to improve our technology through real-world operations,” an Uber blog post reads.

“With its challenging roads and often varied weather, Pittsburgh provided a wide array of experiences. San Francisco comes with its own nuances including more bikes on the road, high-traffic density and narrow lanes.”

While it’s unclear how Uber will ultimately respond to the challenge from the DMV, what is more apparent is that this will only be the beginning of the dispute between state regulators and the maverick company over autonomous vehicles.

“Whatever happens, it’s definitely going to get more interesting before it gets resolved,” Brulte said.

As featured in the December 14, 2016 edition of the San Francisco Business Times