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Uber offers self-driving car rides in San Francisco — and California threatens legal action

Uber offers self-driving car rides in San Francisco — and California threatens legal action
An Uber self-driving car heads out for a test drive Dec. 13 in San Francisco. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

Hours after Uber added a small number of self-driving cars to its ride-hailing service in San Francisco, California regulators ordered the company to stop using the vehicles on public roads until it gets a permit.

The Wednesday launch in Uber's hometown built on a public pilot program the company started in Pittsburgh in September. The testing lets everyday people experience the cars as Uber works to identify glitches before expanding the technology's use.

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California law, however, requires a state permit to test autonomous vehicles on public roads, and Uber does not have one.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter to the company Wednesday saying that Uber "must cease" deploying the cars or face unspecified legal action.

Even before the DMV sent the letter, Uber knew about the requirement and argued that its self-driving cars do not count as autonomous vehicles because they require a person behind the wheel to monitor and intervene if needed.

Uber has a history of testing legal boundaries. Although the company has been around less than a decade, it has argued with authorities around the world about how much of its drivers' histories should be covered in background checks and whether those drivers should be treated as contractors ineligible for employee benefits.

THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO

Uber's self-driving tests in San Francisco began with a "handful" of Volvo luxury SUVs — the company wouldn't release an exact number — that have been tricked out with sensors so they can steer, accelerate and brake, and even decide to change lanes. The company said the cars would have an Uber employee behind the wheel to take over should the technology fail. Users of the app could be matched with a self-driving car but could opt out if they preferred a human driver. Self-driven rides cost the same as ordinary ones.

San Francisco can be a daunting place to drive given its famously steep hills, frequent fog, street and cable cars, active bicycle culture, and roads that are constantly being repaved and restricted for bike lanes and traffic management.

Uber believes its technology is ready to handle all this safely, though its executives concede the vehicles are nowhere near able to drive without a human ready to take control in dicey situations.

There was room for improvement during a Tuesday test drive attended by the Associated Press. The car was destined for a local pizza parlor, but it didn't pull directly in front of the restaurant, and instead stopped in the middle of the street. The cars may strike some riders as over-cautious, too. During the test drive, one idled in a traffic jam even though an adjacent lane was clear, prompting the human driver to make the move himself.

Uber's fleet of Volvo XC90s weren't the first self-driving cars on San Francisco streets — several other companies visit regularly with test prototypes, though none offers public rides.

Once testing is complete, the ultimate vision is to sell to the public technology which supporters argue will save thousands of lives because it doesn't drink, text, fall asleep or take dangerous risks. It also doesn't require a paycheck.

PERMIT ME NOT

Under state law, self-driving tests on public roads require a permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles. The department has issued permits to 20 companies, mostly a collection of traditional automakers and tech companies — but not Uber.

Uber argues that its cars aren't really autonomous, and thus aren't covered by the law. Under the law, an "autonomous vehicle" requires a permit if it can drive itself "without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person."

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According to Anthony Levandowski, the leader of Uber's self-driving program, Uber's cars simply aren't advanced enough to drive themselves without human monitoring. "We're just not capable of doing that yet," he said. Therefore, the Volvos are not autonomous and do not require a permit.

It makes no sense to get a permit when one is not needed, Levandowski said: "This is where science and logic needs to trump blind compliance."

In a statement issued late Tuesday, the DMV said it "encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars" and noted that 20 companies have permits to test hundreds of cars in California.

"Uber shall do the same," the statement said.

Operating without a permit arguably would give Uber a competitive advantage. Companies with such permits must report to the state all crashes and every instance in which a person takes control during testing. All that information is public. To receive a permit, a company must show proof of insurance, pay a $150 fee and agree that a human driver can take control of the vehicle.

Uber's stance seems likely to upset both state officials and competitors, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who tracked California's law as it was drafted in 2012. Although an attorney could argue that Uber is reading the letter of California law correctly, Smith said, testing permits were "envisioned as a gateway, as an interim step" to launching self-driving cars on public roads.

Smith recalled discussing at the time the argument that Uber is now making: One day, a company might go public without a testing permit precisely because the law requires human oversight during testing.

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UPDATES:

4:35 p.m.: This article was updated to add that California regulators have ordered Uber to stop deploying the cars without a permit and threatened legal action.

This article was originally published at 5:30 a.m.

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