Well, that was fast: California puts the brakes on Uber's self-driving fleet

December 15, 2016

Yesterday, we told you that Uber had brought its test-fleet of self-driving vehicles to San Francisco, and that the California Department of Motor Vehicles was not amused.

Apparently, "not amused" would be an understatement.

Within hours of yesterday's launch of the pilot program--which mirrors the one that Uber launched in Pittsburgh over the summer--DMV lawyers sent the company a sternly worded letter that read, in part, "If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action."

Who's in the right?

According to some reports, Uber has been testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco for months--with the DMV's knowledge. However, the agency did nothing to put the brakes on Uber's autonomous program until yesterday, when the company officially announced it to the public.

Perhaps that was all the DMV needed to spring into action. Or perhaps it was goaded to react in response to a video posted yesterday (embedded above), featuring what looks to be one of Uber's self-driving Volvo XC90s cruising through a red light.

According to the timestamp on the clip, the event occurred on November 28, long before yesterday's launch. It's worth noting that the footage was shot by the driver of a conventional taxi, who handed it over to the manager of the cab company, who waited until yesterday to post it . The reason for the delay is unclear, but post it he did, and the evidence seems pretty damning.

Uber has responded to the clip, saying that the car in question was being controlled by a human driver and that it wasn't part of the autonomous vehicle program. The company has suspended the driver pending an investigation of the matter.

The video hasn't altered Uber's belief that is in compliance with California law and that it doesn't need DMV approval to operate its self-driving vehicles. That view is supported in part by the state's somewhat fuzzy definition of autonomous cars. By law, a self-driving vehicle is one that can operate "without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person", and Uber has not one, but two monitors in the front seat of each autonomous car.

Our take

If Uber's demo video is accurate, with its depictions of "drivers" with their hands off the steering wheel, then the company is using self-driving vehicles, plain and simple. Uber may be following the letter of the law, but not the spirit. 

We're not lawyers, but if the case should go to court, we're not entirely sure Uber would prevail. One obvious piece of evidence weighing against Uber is the fact that so many other automakers have played by the DMV's rules. That suggests that the regulations aren't nearly as onerous as Uber might want them to seem. As the DMV said in a statement yesterday:

"The California DMV encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars. We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested. Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same."

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