SAN FRANCISCO — Uber says it won't comply with a California Department of Motor Vehicles demand that it get a permit to test its self-driving cars in San Francisco.
The DMV on Wednesday sent the company a cease-and-desist letter saying it must stop its self-driving car tests in the state. The California Attorney General has said it will "seek injunctive and other appropriate relief” if Uber does not comply.
But on Friday Uber revved its engines, saying it would continue testing despite the DMV's stance. The California Attorney General has threatened an injunction if Uber does not comply.
Uber's position is that the semi-autonomous car system it is testing here is really no different from current advanced driver assistance systems available now for owners of Teslas and other cars that help with parking and collision avoidance.
In that light, Uber doesn't believe it needs a permit because what it's working on doesn't meet the DMV requirements for a truly autonomous vehicle, which would be one that drives without the active, physical control or monitoring of a human being.
The permitting process "doesn’t apply to us" because "you don’t need to get belts and suspenders or whatever else if you’re wearing a dress," Anthony Levandowski, who runs Uber's autonomous car programs, said in a press call Friday afternoon.
“We cannot in good conscience” comply with a regulation that the company doesn’t believe applies to it, he said.
The DMV cease-and-desist letter said that under the California Vehicle Code, an autonomous vehicle must have a permit to ensure that "those testing the vehicle have provided an adequate level of financial responsibility, have adequately trained qualified test drivers on the safe operation of the autonomous technology; and will notify the DMV when the vehicles have been involved in a collision."
if Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action, DMV attorney Brian Soublet wrote in a letter addressed to Levandowski.
"It's an outrageously irresponsible position," says John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog. "We believe their activity is a criminal offense under the Motor Vehicle Code, punishable with up to six months in jail."
As least 20 other companies have applied for and received the DMV permits to test on California roads, including Google, Tesla, Ford and Nvidia.
Uber isn't picking a fight, said Levandowski, but is taking a stand.
The technology it employs is already “commonplace on thousands of cars being driven today in the Bay area,” he said.
Uber has been testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, Pa., for more than a month. In San Francisco, the ride-hailing company is using 11 sensor-packed Volvo XC90 SUVs. Some are meant to pick up customers, others will be used to log mapping and sensor research miles.
In both instances, the cars are not capable of being driven without active physical control and monitoring, according to Uber.
Levandowski said Uber has asked the DMV what is different about its technology compared with Tesla's, which have an Autopilot partially self-driving feature, but hasn’t received an answer.
The California DMV wasn't immediately available for comment.
For Uber, the question is what, specifically, is the distinction between a semi-autonomous and a fully autonomous vehicle. Levandowski said he didn’t know “what threshold you need to cross to go over” to become fully autonomous.
“Is it being able to make sharp turns?” he asked.
Uber has been welcomed in Pittsburgh, where it maintains a large facility and where it is also testing its self-driving technology.
Asked why the company felt the need to test in California where it was constrained by regulations, Levandowski answered that he went to the University of California-Berkeley, lives in nearby Oakland and works in San Francisco.
“We could also go test it on the dark side of the moon, but it’s more relevant to test it in the place that we think has the most relevance in our lives,” he said.
Hands at 5 and 7 o'clock
When Uber tests its cars, it has people sitting in both the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat, both of whom are monitoring what the vehicle is doing and thinking.
“When the vehicle is operating, they are instructed to have their hands on the wheel. They have them in the 5 and 7 o’clock positions,” Levandowski said.
In addition, just as in cars used in Driver’s Ed, there’s a secondary set of controls on the passenger side, “so just like an instructor they’re able to take over for the driver,” he said.
Uber currently is not working toward a vehicle that has no steering wheel, pedals or need for a human driver, Levandowski said. Rather, it is pursuing technology that provides a significant level of driver assistance while demanding driver oversight.
The current tug of war over the testing permit speaks to the evolving nature of self-driving car regulations.
Government agencies have spent much of 2016 trying to set guidelines in order to avoid a patchwork of self-driving cars rules that vary by state, which risks making a driverless car legal in one state and illegal in the next.
Earlier this fall, Department of Transportation secretary Anthony Foxx issued a 110-page document aimed at steering tech and automotive companies down the same autonomous car lane.
A growing number of tech and automotive companies have joined the self-driving car race, with Ford announcing earlier this year that it plans to build a ride-sharing focused self-driving car with no need for a driver by 2021.
Contributing: Marco della Cava