California officials will soon inspect the headquarters of Uber's self-driving-truck division, formerly known as Otto, to help settle a lingering question – whether the company's tests on public roads violate state regulations.
Representatives of the Department of Motor Vehicles and the California Highway Patrol plan to visit the San Francisco facility sometime in the coming weeks, a DMV spokesman said Friday. The specific date has not been set.
Consumer Watchdog filed a complaint with the department in February, arguing that Otto's tests of self-driving trucks on the freeways around San Francisco broke state rules governing autonomous vehicles. Those regulations dictate that vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds "shall not be approved for testing as autonomous vehicles on public roads," and tractor cabs typically weigh 15,000 pounds or more.
Ride service Uber, which bought Otto for $680 million last year, argues that the trucks should not be considered autonomous because they require someone behind the wheel ready to take control as needed. And yet, all companies currently testing self-driving cars on California roads follow that same protocol.
Department spokesman Artemio Armenta said DMV officials had a "productive" meeting with Uber executives in February. The company, he said, maintained that the technology should be considered a kind of advanced driver-assistance system, rather than something that can fully control a truck.
"The DMV will be conducting a site visit with CHP to see the capabilities of Otto's trucks in person within the next few weeks," Armenta said in an email.
An Uber spokeswoman said the company maintains an open invitation for policymakers from across the country to visit the facility.
"We look forward to hosting DMV and CHP when they decide to accept our invitation," the spokeswoman said in an email.
Forbes reported Friday that Uber recently dropped the Otto name, following a lawsuit from Canadian company Otto Motors, which makes robotic vehicles that operate inside factories and warehouses. The truck operation is now part of Uber's Advanced Technology Group.
Uber has clashed with the DMV before over self-driving technology.
In December, the company started offering rides in self-driving cars in San Francisco without obtaining a permit from the DMV. When the department insisted that Uber get a permit first, the company shipped its cars to Arizona. In March, however, Uber applied for and obtained a DMV permit to test autonomous cars in California.
Otto was founded last year by a veteran of Google's self-driving car program, Anthony Levandowski, and was quickly snapped up by Uber. But that purchase has come back to haunt the company.
Google's program, now spun off as a company called Waymo, sued Uber in February, accusing Levandowski of stealing Waymo's proprietary designs for lidar, a laser sensor used by most autonomous vehicles. This month the judge hearing the high-stakes case said it should be decided by a jury, and he barred Levandowski from working on lidar technology for Uber. The company, in turn, ordered Levandowski to turn over any purloined documents or swear under oath that he hadn't stolen anything.