Uber Claims It Doesn’t Need California’s Permission For Self-Driving Cars

Image courtesy of Uber

The public slapfight between Uber and the California Department of Motor Vehicles continued on Friday afternoon, with the ridesharing service declaring that it’s new self-driving cars don’t need a special permit to operate in San Francisco.

Uber launched the limited fleet of autonomous Volvo SUVs earlier this week, but did so without applying for a permit from the state DMV to test self-driving cars on public streets.

The DMV responded immediately, alerting Uber to the fact that these permits are required by state law, and if the company continued to test the SUVs without permission, Uber could face legal action.

Then on Friday afternoon, Uber exec Anthony Levandowski held a press conference, effectively replying to the state with a “nuh-uh.”

“[W]e respectfully disagree with the California Department of Motor Vehicles legal interpretation of today’s autonomous regulations,” said Levandowski, “in particular that Uber needs a testing permit to operate its self-driving cars in San Francisco.”

At issue is whether or not these cars fall under the state’s definition of “autonomous.”

Autonomous, under the California vehicle code, means that a car is equipped with technology that gives it the “capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.”

Levandowski argues that this definition doesn’t apply to the Uber cars, claiming that the self-driving Volvos can not operated without “active physical control or monitoring.”

The self-driving Uber cars in San Francisco and Pittsburgh are not entirely driverless. There is a person sitting in the driver’s seat with their hands lightly on the wheel. A second person — a researcher — is in the front passenger’s seat.

Uber’s position is that this makes the cars no different that existing vehicles — like Teslas equipped with that company’s Autopilot feature — that are permitted on the road in California without any additional permits required.

“It’s hard to understand why the DMV would seek to require self-driving Ubers to get permits when it accepts that Tesla’s autopilot technology does not need them,” said Levandoski. “We asked for clarification as to specifically what is different about our tech from the DMV, but have not received it.”

The comparison to Autopilot may not be the best example. First, the features available in Teslas right now are not self-driving, but do offer advanced assistance to the driver. In the following Uber video promoting the San Francisco self-driving vehicles, the company explicitly shows the “driver” of the Uber vehicle taking her hands fully off the steering wheel, a move that has reportedly resulted in a number of high-profile collisions for Tesla:

In fact, the lack of full autonomy in Autopilot has resulted in mounting pressure for Tesla to drop the Autopilot name for the technology.

Uber claimed on Friday that even though its self-driving cars are state-of-the-art, “they still require monitoring by a vehicle operator at all times” by “highly trained vehicle operators.”

It’s interesting to hear Uber praise these drivers, only a day after blaming them for a video of tricked-out Uber Volvos apparently running red lights:

Levandowski also claimed on Friday that the California DMV had known about the self-driving Ubers for more than a month.

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, a rep for the DMV responded that “Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner,” and that the company is putting “self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown.”

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