Uber scores permit to test self-driving cars in California

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Uber’s self-driving Volvos are finally street-legal.

Well, two of them are, anyway.

The ride-hailing startup on Wednesday received a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that allows it to test two self-driving cars on public roads, a DMV spokeswoman said. The permit covers 48 drivers for the two cars.

Uber says its self-driving cars are not back on the road yet, and it has no plans to resume its pilot program picking up passengers.

The move comes a week after Uber, in a surprising about-face, caved to local regulators and agreed to apply for the permit. Uber previously had refused to seek the permit — though it was only $150 and DMV officials said it could be issued in as little as 72 hours — because the company argued its autonomous Volvos had a driver behind the wheel at all times. Uber likened its cars to Teslas with driver-assist features, rather than fully autonomous vehicles, and claimed they didn’t need state permits to drive on public roads.

The DMV disagreed and stripped Uber’s self-driving cars of their registrations — shutting down the company’s autonomous vehicle pilot program just one week after it launched. Instead of working with California regulators, Uber at the time decided to ship its self-driving cars to Arizona, where they started picking up passengers last month.

Even though Uber now has permission from California to operate its self-driving cars, John Simpson of Santa Monica-based advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog remained uneasy about the technology.

Uber should not pick up passengers while the cars are being tested, he said.

“When Uber illegally deployed its robot cars in San Francisco last year, the vehicles were observed driving through red lights,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Uber’s technology simply isn’t safe enough to put passengers at risk.”

Now that Uber has a state permit, it must report accidents involving its self-driving cars, as well as incidents where the self-driving technology fails and a human has to take over.


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