​After Uber brouhaha, CA looks to tighten self-driving car law

California floats a bill that would let the DMV fine companies $25,000 per day, per vehicle if they don't get autonomous vehicle permits.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Self-driving Uber cars lined up on a downtown San Francisco street in December.

James Martin/CNET

Uber flouted California law and rolled out its self-driving cars to passengers in San Francisco last month, without a permit from the state. Now, some local legislators are taking measures, in the name of safety, to ensure no company does that again.

Assembly member Phil Tang introduced a state bill on Thursday that would give the California Department of Motor Vehicles more ways to go after companies that illegally operate autonomous vehicles.

Under the bill, the DMV would be able to authorize police to impound the vehicles without permits and fine companies up to $25,000 per vehicle, per day of violation. The DMV would also be able to prohibit companies in violation of the law from applying for an autonomous vehicle permit for two years. Under the current law, companies that operate self-driving cars without a permit only get an infraction.

Interest and research in autonomous vehicles is a hot topic in both the auto and tech industries. Automakers from Toyota to Ford to Volvo all have projects under way, and Silicon Valley giants like Google, Intel, Tesla Motors and Apple are also betting on the tech. Uber made its name by pairing passengers with drivers via a phone app, but now it's also jumping into the self-driving car game.

"I applaud our innovation economy and all the companies developing autonomous vehicle technology, but no community should face what we did in San Francisco," said Ting in a statement. "The pursuit of innovation does not include a license to put innocent lives at risk."

Uber declined to comment specifically on the bill, but the company has said it's committed to California and wants to develop "workable" rules for self-driving cars in the state.

Uber started its self-driving car program in San Francisco last month. But within hours of the launch, the DMV told the company it was breaking the law and needed to halt the program until it got a permit. Uber refused to back down and said it would keep the cars on the road.

After a week of back-and-forth between Uber and the DMV, along with an intervention from California's Office of the Attorney General, the DMV announced it was revoking the registration of 16 of the company's autonomous vehicles. Again, the agency told Uber to get a permit, just like 20 other companies working on self-driving technology in the state, including Google, Tesla, Honda, BMW and Ford.

But, rather than get a permit, Uber moved its self-driving car pilot to Arizona.

The day of Uber's launch in San Francisco, one of its autonomous vehicles was recorded running a red light. Similar incidents were reported throughout the week, which prompted lawmakers and pedestrian and bicycle groups to question the safety of the vehicles.

"These companies have demonstrated remarkable negligence in their attempts to prioritize profit over public safety, and it's refreshing to see a state representative step up to protect our residents," said San Francisco County Supervisor and Transportation Authority Chair Aaron Peskin in a statement. "San Franciscans are not guinea pigs and our public streets aren't experimental test labs."

First published January 5, 7:59 p.m. PT.
Update, January 6 at 10:57 a.m.: Adds background information on Uber wanting to develop self-driving car rules in California.