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Uber Brings Self-Driving Cars to SF, Without State Permits

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on December 15, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Uber began rolling out its fleet of self-driving cars in San Francisco today, allowing passengers in the ride-hailing company's hometown to take a driverless cab through the city's rainy hills and streets. Uber had previously offered self-driving vehicles to a small number of users in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but its SF aims are grander -- pretty much anyone on the app can get an autonomous car in San Francisco.

There's one catch though. Hours after the service launched, California regulators said that Uber was breaking the law because it lacked state permits for autonomous driving.

Sorry Officer, I Forgot My Self-Driving License

Uber's San Francisco pilot program lets everyday users jump in to a driverless car. Except those cars might not be legal.

In California, companies that wish to use autonomous cars on public roads must have permits from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The state vehicle code defines autonomous vehicles as any vehicle equipped with technology "that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator."

Twenty companies have obtained the necessary approval to test such cars, according to the state DMV, with a total of 130 autonomous vehicles allowed on the road in the state. Those approved companies include Google, Tesla, and General Motors -- but not Uber.

In a letter to the company on Wednesday, DMV Deputy Director and Chief Counsel Brian G. Soublet ordered Uber to cease using its cars and threatened legal action if it did not.

Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit prior to today, the company's launch would have been permissible. However, it is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit. Any action by Uber to continue the operation of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease until Uber complies.

Uber, however, argues that California regulations don't apply to its cars. Those rules "apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them," Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, said in blog post announcing the launch.

"For us," he said, "it's still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them." Uber's driverless fleet is equipped with a human operator who can take over should anything go wrong.

Not the Only Hiccup

Uber's regulatory problems weren't the only thing to go wrong on the fleet's first day, though. After just a few hours on the street, one of Uber's self-driving cars was caught on film casually running a red light.

In the video, a Volvo decked out with Uber's self-driving sensors passes through an intersection as a pedestrian is crossing the street, a few seconds after the light had changed to red. A Twitter user also reported an Uber self-driving vehicle "lurching" into a busy San Francisco intersection while its light was red.

Both incidents, Uber says, were due to human error and the operators responsible have been suspended.

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