Blow to transport company after permit battle over its 16 autonomous vehicles
Uber has been forced to halt its controversial pilot of self-driving cars in San Francisco after local highways regulators revoked its vehicles’ registrations, ending a legal stand-off over California’s rules on testing autonomous vehicles.
The climbdown after just a week of testing is a blow to Uber, which has said its San Francisco scheme was essential to both developing its technology and building public trust in self-driving cars. Its clash with regulators echoes the legal battles that have surrounded its ride-sharing services, which still continue in some regions around the world.
Uber officials met representatives from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the state’s attorney-general and the California State Transportation Agency after the transport company was threatened with an injunction for operating without a permit for autonomous vehicles.
Uber has argued that because its cars require constant supervision from a human driver, they do not meet the state’s definition of an “autonomous vehicle” and so did not require a permit, despite 20 other companies including Google, Tesla, Ford and BMW all holding such a licence for similar trials.
After Uber’s cars continued to operate on San Francisco’s roads earlier this week in spite of the legal threats, the DMV revoked the registrations for its 16 vehicles.
“It was determined that the registrations were improperly issued for these vehicles because they were not properly marked as test vehicles,” the DMV said.
Uber said it had no plans to apply for the permit and so had to halt the trial, which was its second such test after a similar programme in Pittsburgh began in September.
“We have stopped our self-driving pilot in California as the DMV has revoked the registrations for our self-driving cars,” Uber said on Wednesday evening. “We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 per cent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”
Ed Lee, San Francisco’s mayor, said: “We are pleased to hear that the DMV took enforcement action, which I strongly supported.
“I have always been a strong supporter of innovation and autonomous vehicle development and testing, but only under conditions that put human, bicyclist and pedestrian safety first.”
Companies that have obtained a permit are required to disclose traffic accidents within 10 business days of the collision and provide an annual “disengagement report” that details how often human drivers had to retake control from the robot car.
“Uber has claimed they’re refusing to get permits ‘on principle’. That’s nonsense; they just don’t want to reveal how flawed and dangerous their robot cars are,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a campaign group.
In a letter to Uber, Jean Shiomoto, director of the California DMV, said: “I appreciate the action that Uber has taken in the interest of public safety.”
Despite Uber’s opposition to the permit, the DMV invited the company to apply for one, saying that the agency “stands ready to work with you collaboratively” and promised to “expedite the approval process” if Uber applies.
“The DMV fully supports the advancement of autonomous technologies,” Ms Shiomoto wrote. “This technology holds the promise of enhanced safety and mobility but must be tested responsibly.”
Uber is racing against both traditional carmakers and newcomers such as Apple and Alphabet to deploy self-driving cars. Earlier on Wednesday, Waymo, the Alphabet unit formerly known as Google self-driving cars, said it was in talks with Honda about a new partnership, its second in the industry.