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Uber to Cali DMV: Back off, pal, our 'self-driving cars' aren't self driving

Upstart defies permit demand, offers autonomous rides in San Francisco

By Thomas Claburn, 15 Dec 2016

Shrugging off a demand from California's Department of Motor Vehicles to obtain a permit to operate its self-driving cars on state roads, Uber contends it doesn't need a permit because the DMV's rules do not apply.

Following Uber's announcement on Wednesday that its self-driving cars are available as a pilot test for customers in San Francisco, the DMV sent a letter to Uber directing the company to halt the test or face legal action, citing California Vehicle Code § 38750 and California Code of Regulations Article 3.7 as the basis for its demand.

In a terse public statement summarizing its position, the agency said 20 companies have already obtained permits to test self-driving cars on state roads and "Uber shall do the same."

Uber, however, says it shall not.

"The rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them," said Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's advanced technology group. "For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them."

In other words, Uber's self-driving cars are not actually self-driving cars; they're operating under human control or supervision.

Uber made that very point in a different context in response to a video of an Uber self-driving-in-name-only car – captured conveniently enough by the dashcam of a Luxor taxicab – that showed the vehicle coasting through a red light outside of San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art on Wednesday.

Youtube Video

"This incident was due to human error," Uber said in a statement send to The Register via email. "This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers. This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers. The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate."

Luxor Cab did not immediately respond to a request to provide more details about the circumstances that allowed this embarrassing moment to be recorded.

Human error – attributed both to self-driving car minders and to drivers of vehicles that collide with cars equipped for autonomous navigation – is the most common explanation evident in incident reports involving Google's self-driving cars (now part of a separate Alphabet business unit, Waymo).

At the same, the annual "disengagement reports" filed by self-driving car firms to document when self-driving software has been disengaged in response to safety concerns or anomalies suggests the technology remains far from perfect. The fatal crash of a Tesla operating under Autopilot software over the summer suggests as much.

Uber, by exempting itself from the permit process, does not have to submit such data for public and regulatory scrutiny. The company argues that regulatory requirements have the potential to slow innovation.

A DMV spokesperson told The Register that the agency has not received a reply to its letter from Uber. ®

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