If a human being with a valid driver's license is sitting behind the steering wheel of a self-driving car, does the car need a special permit? California says it does, and the state DMV has ordered Uber to shut down its self-driving UberX service that it started just one day ago in San Francisco.
"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," the DMV said.
Uber has been operating the self-driving Volvo XC90s in Pittsburgh (the one in Pennsylvania, not the Pittsburg across the Bay Bridge from San Francisco) since September with no major incidents. The company said it chose San Francisco as its next test venue because it offers similar challenges to Pittsburgh -- hills, curves, and narrow streets.
"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," Uber said.
But the DMV was not impressed. It said Uber had to apply for a permit and offer proof that it is financially sound, have qualified drivers, and guarantee that it will report collisions and other information to state regulators.
“These requirements serve to build public trust in the safety of the technology and to foster confidence in allowing autonomous vehicles on public streets,” Brian Soublet, the department’s deputy director and chief counsel, wrote in a letter.
Uber not surprised
Uber, which has not been hesitant to confront municipal and state officials elsewhere, anticipated the DMV's announcement in its news release announcing the program.
"We understand that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco. We have looked at this issue carefully and we don’t believe we do," the company said, saying that it would not operate any differently in San Francisco than it has in Pittsburgh, glossing over the fact that Pittsburgh, Pa., is not in the California DMV's jurisdiction.
Also, Uber said, "the [DMV] rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them. For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them."
Driving without a license
Consumer Watchdog, a California advocacy group, is urging even tougher action against Uber, saying San Francisco police should impound Uber’s robot cars. It asked City Attorney Dennis Herrera to file criminal charges against Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
“Uber is essentially driving without a license and its CEO Kalanick should be treated like anyone else who does that,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director. “Kalanick’s willful violation of the law requires prompt response to protect the public’s safety. There have already been reports of Uber’s robot cars running red lights in San Francisco. Prosecutors must hold Uber’s executives responsible for their company’s outrageous actions.”
The red light reference referred to a story in the San Francisco Examiner that reported an Uber self-driving car ran a red light. Uber said the human driver was at fault and suspended him.
Currently, 20 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles in the state, demonstrating that following the rules is no barrier to innovation, Consumer Watchdog said.
White House forum
Besides being targeted for arrest yesterday, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick was named to President-elect Trump's Strategic and Policy Forum, which will offer him guidance on economic issues. Others named yesterday included Tesla CEO Elon Musk and General Motors CEO Mary Barra.
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