Uber takes self-driving cars to San Francisco, DMV isn't happy

December 14, 2016

In August, Uber surprised most of the auto world by launching a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now, the company is bringing some of its self-driving vehicles to San Francisco, California, and while that might please many Bay Area techies, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles isn't so enthusiastic. 

As with Uber's Pittsburgh fleet, many of the cars employed in San Francisco are Volvo XC90 crossovers. (Uber and Volvo have partnered to develop self-driving vehicles via a shared investment of $300 million.) Uber purchased the vehicles from Volvo, then equipped them with its own autonomous software. The company's fleet also includes Ford Focus sedans.

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In California, the cars function much as they do in Pennsylvania. They have two engineers onboard--one in the driver's seat, one in the passenger's--taking notes and generally being available should anything go wrong. When customers book their ride, they're notified if they've been matched with one of the self-driving vehicles, and they have the chance to decline if they'd rather travel with an active human driver.

All of which sounds great and reasonable, except for one small problem: the California DMV says that Uber doesn't have a permit to operate self-driving vehicles on the state's public roads. Twenty companies have applied for and receive such permits, but Uber isn't among them.

In response, Uber says that its cars aren't self-driving, and that's why there are humans onboard. According to Uber, those humans can and frequently do take over control of vehicles in driving situations. 

The DMV says that whether or not there are humans onboard is irrelevant: Uber's vehicles are capable of driving autonomously, and that fact alone means that Uber has to apply for the proper permit.

To complicate matters, California law defines self-driving vehicles somewhat vaguely, saying only that they can operate "without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person". By that definition, the DMV and Uber both seem to be in the right--and the wrong.

Will Uber bend to the DMV's demands? Will the DMV agree that Uber's current usage of autonomous vehicles doesn't require a permit? We'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, if you want to spend a couple of minutes watching attractive people ride around San Francisco in self-driving Volvo XC90s, have a look at Uber's promo video, embedded above.

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