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Uber won’t renew its permit to test self-driving cars in California

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Talk about bad timing

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Uber will not renew its permit to test autonomous vehicles on public roads in California. It’s further evidence that the company is pulling back from its aggressive plans to launch a self-driving service in the wake of a fatal crash in Arizona, which resulted in the death of a pedestrian.

In a letter, the California DMV confirmed that Uber’s authority to test self-driving cars in the state will end March 31st following the decision not to renew its license. A spokesperson for Uber confirmed that it would not seek to continue testing in California in light of the crash in Arizona. Federal investigators are currently probing the cause of the crash.

“We proactively suspended our self-driving operations, including in California, immediately following the Tempe incident,” the spokesperson said. “Given this, we decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future.”

Arizona governor Doug Ducey suspended Uber “indefinitely” from testing in the state, after describing the dash cam footage of the crash released by the Tempe Police Department as “disturbing.” Uber has also grounded its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and Toronto.

The story of Uber’s permit to test autonomous vehicles in California is a saga unto itself. The company infamously began testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco in December 2016 in defiance of the DMV’s order for the company to obtain the permit. Uber refused, and the DMV revoked the licenses of its self-driving fleet. That prompted the company to move its testing operation to Tempe, where almost a year later, a pedestrian was killed while crossing in front of a self-driving Uber vehicle.

According to emails obtained by The Verge, Uber knew for months that its self-driving cars violated the state’s requirement that autonomous vehicles be licensed before operating on public roads. Yet, it still deployed its fleet of autonomous vehicles anyway, arguing that because they required a human driver to monitor the vehicle at all times, they did not legally meet the definition of an autonomous vehicle under the state’s law. The company did eventually conceded, obtaining a permit in March 2017.

Uber clearly wanted to avoid a political fight with the DMV that a permit renewal likely would have entailed. The agency is gearing up to begin issuing permits in April to companies wishing to test fully driverless vehicles on public roads without human safety drivers.

Asked whether that program was still going forward in the wake of the Uber crash, a DMV spokesperson said, “The DMV is allowed to begin issuing driverless testing and/or deployment permits on April 2, but that doesn’t mean a manufacturer will meet the requirements or if we will approve them.” In other words, Uber’s chances of receiving a permit were probably slim to none.

The fate of Uber’s self-driving program very much hangs in the balance. According to a report in The New York Times, the goal of offering driverless ride-hailing services to the general public by the end of the year was quickly falling apart, and Uber’s self-driving cars had a record of failing to operate correctly under a number of standard road conditions. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi mulled whether to pull the plug before eventually deciding to continue the program.