Uber is sticking to its guns in refusing to apply for a $150 permit that the California Department of Motor Vehicles says it needs to operate self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco. In a conference call with reporters convened late Friday afternoon, Anthony , VP of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, said the company would not be applying for the permit because it doesn’t believe the regulations surrounding self-driving cars apply to its vehicles.
“You don’t need to wear a belt and suspenders and whatever else, things that don’t apply, if you’re wearing a dress,” Levandowski said. “If you’re driving a car, you don’t need a fish and game permit.”
On Wednesday, Uber opened its self-driving service to customers in San Francisco for the first time. Hours after the launch, the DMV sent a letter ordering Uber to cease operations until it had obtained a license to test and operate autonomous vehicles on public roads, warning the company that if it did not stop then the DMV would pursue “legal action.”
Later that day, dashboard camera footage from a local taxi cab caught a self-driving Uber blowing through a red light. Uber said the vehicle was being controlled by a human monitor at the time, and that person was suspended.
Levandowski claimed to respect the regulators at the DMV, but took issue with the state’s definition of autonomous vehicles. He compared the company’s self-driving technology to Tesla’s Autopilot system, arguing that because the self-driving Uber vehicles require humans in the drivers seat monitoring the ride, then they cannot be technically defined as autonomous vehicles under state law.
“It’s hard to understand why the DMV would seek to require self-driving Ubers to get permits when it accepts that Tesla’s autopilot technology does not need them,” he said. “We asked for clarification as to specifically what is different about our tech from the DMV, but have not received it.”
It should be noted, though, that Tesla, in addition to almost two dozen other car and technology companies, have obtained autonomous vehicle testing permits from the DMV.
Asked if Uber was trying to avoid disclosing accidents involving its self-driving cars, as permit holders are required to do, Levandowski denied this. But he also wouldn’t say what level of automation applied to Uber’s vehicles, making it difficult for the public and regulators to adequately assess which rules apply to the company’s automated service.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that actually matters is what’s in regulation and legislation,” he said. “The legislation clearly defines what an autonomous vehicle is, and it’s a binary thing: you’re either it, or you’re not it. There’s no sliding scale.”
It’s unclear where this leaves Uber’s three-day old self-driving service in San Francisco, the city where the company first launched over seven years ago. Levandowski said Uber’s fleet of self-driving Volvo SUVs were continuing to pick-up and drop-off passengers in the city. A spokesperson for the DMV did not immediately return a request for comment.
What is clear, though, is that this is typical Uber behavior. The company has a reputation for being dismissive of local laws, as well as running roughshod over attempts to regulate it. Memorably, the company buried New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in an avalanche of negative ads and in-app pranks to get him to drop his attempt to pass a rule limiting Uber’s growth in the Big Apple — which he did.
How things will proceed for Uber will depend largely on the willingness of local authorities to stand up to Uber’s intense desire to do whatever it wants, regardless of the rules.
Updated, December 16th, 8:52PM ET: The DMV released a letter reiterating its demand that Uber stop using its self-driving cars, and a new added threat: If Uber doesn’t comply, the “Attorney General will seek injunctive and other appropriate relief.”
So the ball’s now in Uber’s court.
Updated, December 17th, 7:30AM ET: A spokesperson for the California attorney general’s office referred all questions to the DMV.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson from Tesla clarified that while the electric car company has autonomous testing permits in California that are specifically for AV testing, it did not obtain permits for its Autopilot driver assistance feature.
But unlike Uber’s technology, Tesla’s Autopilot will lock a driver out if he or she ignores visual and audio warnings to place their hands on the steering wheel. I rode in the driver’s seat of a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh with my hands in my lap for an extended period of time. There were no warnings, nor did the system lock me out.
In many ways, this is a war of words between Uber and the state of California. And a judge will likely have to make the ultimate decision on who’s interpretation of the law is more correct.