Uber To California Regulators: We Still Won’t Seek Permit For Self-Driving Cars

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SAN FRANCISCO — Flouting demands from the state and the city to shut down its new self-driving car program, Uber on Friday vowed to continue picking up passengers in San Francisco without a permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Uber’s outright refusal to apply for the $150 permit, which would allow it to test up to 10 autonomous vehicles on public streets, sets the ride-hailing giant up for another of the regulatory battles it has been fighting since its inception. The $68 billion startup has employed the same strategy in cities across the country — instead of succumbing to existing regulations, it fights back against rules it doesn’t like, and sometimes succeeds in changing the legal framework.

Speaking publicly about the issue for the first time since the DMV threatened Uber with legal action Wednesday — hours after the program launched — a company executive Friday doubled down on Uber’s argument that it is exempt from the state’s self-driving car regulations.


“The distinction between our self-driving Ubers and the autonomous vehicles described by California state law is not a legal nicety. Nor are we seeking to exploit some loophole in the law,” Anthony Levandowski, vice president of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, told reporters during a conference call Friday. “It’s an important issue of principle about when companies can operate self-driving cars on the roads and the uneven application of statewide rules across very similar types of technology.”

Companies such as Tesla Motors, Google and Nvidia have been awarded permits from the DMV to test autonomous vehicles on California roads, but Uber never sought a permit, saying its cars are not fully autonomous and have drivers behind the wheel — similar to Teslas sold with an autopilot feature.

“We cannot in good conscience sign up to regulation for something we are not doing,” he said.

None of the 20 companies currently permitted to test self-driving vehicles in California send their cars onto public roads without a driver — it’s not allowed under state rules.

Uber representatives spoke with the California State Transportation Agency on Thursday night and with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee Friday morning, but neither conversation led to a resolution.

During his talk with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Lee warned that the company must pull its self-driving cars from city streets until it has the proper permit, according to the mayor’s office. In the meantime, Lee is working with the DMV, state officials and the city attorney’s office to explore all available options for enforcing state law.

“Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner to the city of San Francisco by choosing to put Uber’s self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown,” Ellen Canale, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, wrote in an emailed statement.

Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office on Friday sent Uber a letter demanding the company “immediately remove its ‘self-driving’ vehicles from the state’s roadways until Uber complies with all applicable statutes and regulations.” If Uber does not, the letter promised the Attorney General would seek an injunction.

John Simpson, of Santa Monica-based advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog, said Uber is potentially putting people in danger by disregarding the state’s self-driving car rules.

“It is absolutely unconscionable that Uber will not comply with these regulations,” he said

The next step for Uber and state regulators likely will be court, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and scholar with Stanford Law School who specializes in autonomous driving.

“If Uber’s not backing down at all, the most likely step that the DMV would take would be to go to court and ask the judge for an injunction ordering Uber to stop,” he said.

In the meantime, Uber’s self-driving cars are picking up passengers in San Francisco. Said Levandowski on Friday: “We’re intending to continue.”

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