Tech Industry

​Uber: We don't need a permit for self-driving cars

The ride-hailing company rolls out autonomous vehicles for passengers in San Francisco without securing a state permit. California calls this illegal.

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Uber has a simple approach to business: Don't ask for permission, but be prepared to seek forgiveness.

Its foray into self-driving cars in California is no different.

Confirming news that CNET broke Tuesday, the ride-hailing company officially announced Wednesday that it's rolling out a fleet of self-driving cars to passengers in San Francisco, making California only the second state in which Uber offers such services. But Uber didn't run the plan past the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which requires a permit for such cars.

Now, the DMV told Uber to cut it out ... or else.

"It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit," the DMV wrote in a letter to Uber on Wednesday. "Any action by Uber to continue the operation of vehicles equipped with autonomous technology on public streets in California must cease."

Self-driving cars are a hot topic in both the auto and tech industries. Toyota, Ford, Volvo, Tesla and other automakers have projects underway, while Silicon Valley giants including Google, Intel, Tesla Motors and Apple are also betting on the tech. But with Uber's efforts to beat out rivals, is the company going too far by skirting the rules?

The rules don't apply to us

The DMV warned Uber a month ago that it needed a permit to operate self-driving cars in the state, according to Brian Soublet, the department's chief legal counsel, who held a conference call with reporters on Wednesday. Soublet said he told the company the same thing Tuesday before its launch. But Uber didn't appear to listen.

"We understand that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco," Anthony Levandowski, Uber's vice president of self-driving technology, wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "We have looked at this issue carefully and we don't believe we do."

Twenty other companies working on self-driving technology have already received permits from California's DMV, including Google, Tesla, BMW, Honda, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Nissan and GM. Uber is the first of these companies to bring its autonomous vehicles to the public in the US.

Levandowski criticized California's rules and requirements as overly strict, warning they "could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation." Arizona, Nevada and Florida have been leaders in this arena, he said, proving they are "pro technology." Pennsylvania, where Uber first launched its self-driving cars in September, hasn't yet enacted autonomous vehicle legislation.

California's rules apply to cars that are completely autonomous without a person monitoring the driving, Uber's Levandowski said in his post. Uber intends to have "safety drivers" who can take over if anything goes awry in a self-driving car, at all times.

"Our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them," Levandowski said, adding the project is in its "early days."

Soublet said in the conference call that the law applies to the kind of technology in the vehicle, not whether a human is behind the wheel. "They've equipped the vehicles that allows them to operate autonomously," Soublet said. "That's the key."

Are self-driving cars safe?

The DMV says it encourages the development of self-driving cars as long as companies seek proper permission. The reason for that, the department says, is for public safety.

"It is essential that Uber takes appropriate measures to ensure safety of the public," the DMV wrote in its letter to Uber on Wednesday. "If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action."

Uber didn't return request for comment regarding the DMV's letter.

Most companies working on self-driving cars tout the vehicles as a potentially safer alternative to human drivers. And, for the most part, testing of the technology has shown the cars to be safe. However, some autonomous vehicles have been involved in accidents, including a Google car collision and at least three crashes involving Teslas in autopilot mode, one of which was fatal.

Since Uber introduced self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, there have been a few reports of cars involved in fender-benders, going the wrong way down one-way streets and ignoring traffic signals, according to Quartz. No injuries have been reported, however.

A self-driving Uber ran a red light in downtown San Francisco on Wednesday morning, just hours after the company's launch. A dashboard camera video, captured by Luxor Cab taxi, shows the self-driving Uber Volvo SUV zooming through the light long after it turned red. Similar incidents have been reported throughout the city today, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

Luxor Cab confirmed to CNET it recorded the video. An Uber spokesperson said in an email that the incident was due to human error. "This vehicle was not part of the pilot and was not carrying customers," the spokesperson said. "The driver involved has been suspended while we continue to investigate."

Uber's launch of self-driving cars in California without a permit isn't the first time the company has sallied forth without government permission. The company didn't seek permission when it launched its ride-hailing service in San Francisco in 2010.

Four months after its rollout, Uber was hit with a "cease and desist" letter from the California Public Utility Commission and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. The same thing happened when the company launched its carpool service UberPool in 2014.

"We don't have to beg for forgiveness because we are legal," Uber CEO Travis Kalanick told the Wall Street Journal in 2013 during an interview about the cease-and-desist letters. "There's been so much corruption and so much cronyism in the taxi industry and so much regulatory capture that if you ask for permission up front for something that's already legal, you'll never get it."

As of this writing, Uber's autonomous vehicles are still cruising San Francisco's streets, despite the threats from the DMV. With self-driving cars, Uber appears to continue its modus operandi of dealing with regulators after the fact.

First published December 14, 3:24 p.m. PT.

Updated at 5:29 p.m. and 8:43 p.m.: First update adds confirmation from Luxor Cab and comment from Uber spokesperson. Second update adds information from the DMV.