Uber's self-driving cars back in SF, but now they're legal

The futuristic cars have returned to the streets of San Francisco, but they're only being used for mapping.

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

California's Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed it reinstated the registrations of five self-driving Uber cars as long as the company uses them only for mapping purposes.


It's been a month since a clash between Uber and California lawmakers ended with the company packing up its fleet of self-driving cars and moving to Arizona. Now, five of the company's autonomous vehicles popped back up in San Francisco.

What gives?

Uber says these cars are being used only for mapping. In December, the futuristic self-driving vehicles were carting around passengers in San Francisco along with a "safety driver."

"These cars are being used for Uber's mapping purposes only," an Uber spokeswoman said in an email Wednesday. "They are being driven manually at all times and their self-driving systems are disabled."

Uber made its name by pairing passengers with drivers via a phone app. Over the past six years, it's grown from a small startup to multinational company with operations in more than 400 cities in more than 70 countries. The company has a history of launching products and features before getting the required permits. Uber's rollout of self-driving cars in San Francisco was no different. And, unsurprisingly, this move rankled lawmakers.

Within hours of the self-driving car launch in San Francisco last month, California's Department of Motor Vehicles 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.

The day of Uber's launch, one of the self-driving cars was recorded running a red light. Similar incidents were reported throughout the city in the following days, 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," San Francisco County Supervisor and Transportation Authority Chair Aaron Peskin said at the time. "San Franciscans are not guinea pigs and our public streets aren't experimental test labs."

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 the $150 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.

Uber still hasn't gotten a permit for its autonomous vehicles that are now mapping San Francisco's streets. But the DMV is okay with that.

"The DMV worked with Uber to reinstate the registrations for five vehicles -- with the full understanding that the vehicles will be used in a mapping capacity only," a DMV spokeswoman said in an email. "Several companies in California use vehicles such as this for the same purpose."

Mapping streets is part of readying autonomous vehicles for the open road, so the cars can learn to identify routes and detect obstacles. Presumably, Uber hasn't yet given up on bringing self-driving cars to passengers in San Francisco.

"Should Uber decide they want to revisit the issue of self-driving technology on the streets and roads in California, the offer to help them secure proper permitting stands," the DMV spokeswoman said.

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