Uber defies California over self-driving taxis

The ride-sharing company Uber is testing its self-driving taxis on the streets of San Francisco. Californian authorities want to put an end to the tests, but Uber argues it doesn’t require a permit as a driver is sitting in the vehicle. John Dyer reports.

The state of California is threatening to file a lawsuit against Uber if the ridesharing company doesn’t take its self-driving taxis off the streets of San Francisco. (Image credit: Uber)

The state of California is threatening to file a lawsuit against Uber if the ridesharing company doesn’t take its self-driving taxis off the streets of San Francisco. (Image credit: Uber)

Uber is on a collision course with the state of California. This time the clash stems from the controversial American online ride hailing company testing its autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco – with paying passengers on board.

San Francisco-based Uber announced on December 14 that customers seeking an UberX ride in the City on the Bay could receive a self-driving Volvo XC90 if one of the experimental cars were available. UberX is the company’s low-cost riding option of hailing a local driver who picks up customers in their own non-luxury cars.

Never applied for a permit

The announcement stunned San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and state officials, who are usually very tolerant of local innovators. Under Californian law, self-driving cars need special permits. Uber never applied for permits for its Volvo XC90s.

“The California DMV encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars,” the Golden State’s Department of Motor Vehicles said on December 13 in a statement.

“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.”

Driver on board

But Uber said the officials were wrong.

“We respectfully disagree with the California Department of Motor Vehicles legal interpretation of today’s autonomous regulations,” said Uber Vice President of Advanced Technologies, Anthony Levandowski.

This latest disagreement centers on the definition of autonomous vehicles.

California regulations apply to autonomous vehicles that can drive themselves without human operators, said Levandowski. But the Uber’s self-driving cars require drivers, he argued. They always have someone in the driver’s seat.

“It doesn’t apply to us so there’s no reason to get regulations,” Levandowski said. “It’s not about picking a fight. It’s about doing the right thing.”

He noted that electric carmaker Tesla’s vehicles that include an autopilot option don’t require special permits on California roads. The autopilot option allows the car to drive itself, but Tesla has always maintained that a human must still sit behind the wheel to oversee the feature.

Tesla hasn’t responded publicly to Levandowski’s comment’s.

Successful tests in Pittsburgh

In the past few months, the company has already been conducting a similar test in Pittsburgh, a center of robotics research in the United States. Pennsylvania doesn’t require a permit, however.

A private company valued at $68 billion (€65.2 billion/CHF69.8 billion) – a whopping amount given that the seven-year-old firm has created little more than a smart phone app – Uber has wrangled with regulators and litigated around the globe over whether its drivers should possess taxi licenses, work as independent contractors or permanent employees or undergo more extensive criminal and safety checks.

Attorney general threatens to file lawsuit

Mayor Lee met with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick late last week and asked Kalanick to stop the experiment. Kalanick didn’t discuss the meeting publicly, but the company hasn’t announced any changes.

“Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner,” said the mayor’s spokesperson after the meeting. “Uber is putting self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown.”

California Attorney General Kamala Harris – a Democrat who is leaving her job next year to become a U.S. senator – has ordered the company to stop and threatened to file a lawsuit if they don’t.

Ridesharing reduces number of cars

Uber has argued that self-driving cars could be the key to a future where ridesharing cuts down on traffic congestion and makes it easier for people not to own cars.

But critics who said Uber flouts rules designed to protect consumers argued that officials should crack down on the company in the interests of public safety.

The self-driving cars have reportedly run through red lights, for example, said John Simpson, the privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group.

“Uber is essential driving without a license and its CEO Kalanick should be treated like anyone else who does that,” said Simpson. “We believe their activity is a criminal offense under the motor vehicle code, punishable with up to six months in jail. Kalanick should be arrested immediately.”

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