Uber’s testing of self-driving taxis in San Francisco didn’t get very far before encountering a significant roadblock.
On Wednesday morning, executives with the ride-hailing service announced they would expand a pilot program for testing autonomous Volvo XC90s to include operations in its home city. By the afternoon, a top official in California’s Department of Motor Vehicles had issued a warning that Uber did not possess the proper permits for autonomous testing.
The state DMV, which has regulated self-driving operations in the state since 2014, demanded that Uber immediately stop its testing or face legal action until it receives a permit.
“Any action by Uber to continue the action of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease until Uber complies,” wrote Brian Soublet, the deputy director and chief counsel for the DMV, in a letter addressed to Uber’s Anthony Levandowski. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action, including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief.”
It wasn’t immediately clear if Uber would comply with the directive. A company spokesperson did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Only hours earlier, Volvo had announced an expansion of their partnership with Uber, in which the company sells tailored XC90 vehicles to Uber, which then outfits them with its own self-driving technology. Volvo said the San Francisco testing marked “the next phase in a deepening alliance.”
Levandowski became Uber’s lead on autonomous driving earlier this year when the company acquired Otto, a developer of autonomous systems for self-driving trucks that he co-founded. He didn’t appear to be backing down.
In classic Silicon Valley fashion, he published a blog post Wednesday that argued the state’s regulations only apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them—and Uber’s vehicles use safety drivers. “For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”
California’s not yet ready for that, either. The state’s regulations require human safety drivers in all autonomous test vehicles, regardless of the company’s view on the readiness of the technology. Further, the regulations define autonomous vehicles as cars that have the capability to operate without the active physical control or monitoring of a human.
This isn’t the first time Levandowski has raised the ire of a DMV whose regulations he’s brushed aside. In May, Otto tested a self-driving truck on Nevada roads despite a warning from Nevada’s DMV that a test performed without a license and special license plate would violate state laws. As detailed by Backchannel last month, Jude Hurin, the state’s top DMV official, became so incensed by Levandowski’s refusal to adhere to the law that he threatened to shut down autonomous testing in the state.
Consumer groups that track the safety of autonomous vehicles in California were equally angered by Wednesday’s developments. John Simpson, privacy director of Consumer Watchdog, called for law enforcement to impound Uber’s self-driving vehicles in San Francisco and asked the city’s attorney to file criminal charges against Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who separately agreed on Wednesday to serve on president-elect Donald Trump’s business advisory council.
“Uber is threatening public safety and trying to avoid providing important information about its activities,” Simpson said. “Using public roads as your laboratory carries responsibilities. Uber is ignoring them and shamefully flouting important safety requirements. It must be stopped immediately.”
Twenty companies are currently approved to test 130 registered autonomous cars in California. As part of receiving a permit, they agree to carry at least $5 million in insurance coverage, report all accidents to state officials regardless of fault, and provide annual reports outlining circumstances in which their self-driving technology disengaged.
Beyond arguing that California’s rules were not applicable to Uber’s vehicles, Levandowski wrote that the state’s approach to regulating autonomy stifles the pace of innovation. At the time California lawmakers enacted a law in 2012 that sought to provide a regulatory framework for testing autonomous vehicles, it was thought the state was at the vanguard of the then infant transportation technology. Private industry largely encouraged development and passage of that law, which commanded the state’s DMV to develop specific standards and regulations regarding the deployment of test vehicles. The DMV did so.
In the intervening years, however, the industry has come to view California’s regulations, which require test drivers and vehicles that contain controls like steering wheels and gas pedals, as overly restrictive. That’s one reason why companies have gravitated toward testing in states that have no laws regarding autonomous operations on the books—for instance, Google recently deployed a car without traditional controls in Austin, Texas, Otto tested self-driving trucks in Colorado, and Uber conducted the first phase of its XC90 pilot project in Pittsburgh.
California officials are in the process of revisiting their regulations. In the meantime, however, companies are expected to comply with them.
“We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested,” the DMV said in a written statement. “Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”