Uber gets permit to test autonomous cars in California

The Department of Motor Vehicles lists Uber as one of over 20 companies issued testing permits

Uber Technologies’ autonomous cars could be returning to California soon after state authorities permitted the company to test the vehicles.

The ride-hailing company is now listed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles as one of over 20 companies, including Waymo, Tesla and Baidu,  that have been issued autonomous vehicle testing permits as of Wednesday.

The resumption of the tests that were stopped abruptly in December over Uber’s refusal to take a permit from the DMV reflects a significant change of stand by the company, which had argued that its vehicles did not need the permit as the rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them.

“For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them,” Uber said in a post at the time.

Having started testing its self-driving cars with ride-hailing customers in Pittsburgh in September, Uber decided by December to test the vehicles in San Francisco. But the DMV demanded that the company take the Volvo XC90s vehicles off the roads, threatening legal action over Uber’s refusal to seek the US$150 permit.

Uber later struck a conciliatory note, stating that it would halt its self-driving car trials in the city and would work with state regulators on obtaining proper permits for its test cars.

Participating in the state's permit program comes with the provision that all accidents involving the cars have to be reported to authorities within 10 business days of the incident, and the data is published online, which Uber was probably not keen on sharing in a competitive market. Testers are also required to submit annual reports of disengagements of the autonomous mode when there there is a failure of the technology or when immediate manual control is required for safety reasons.

In the new tests, the Uber cars will not be carrying passengers during the pilot, a company spokeswoman said. In December, the company had offered to match riders who request an uberX in San Francisco with a “Self-Driving Uber” if one was available. The spokeswoman did not provide a date as to when the tests would begin.

Uber made on Wednesday yet another overture to regulators. It said it would prohibit the use of its “greyballing” technology to target action by local regulators. The Greyball tool, which provided a doctored view of the app to certain riders in many countries,  helped Uber avoid officials seeking rides to investigate the ride-hailing service, the New York Times reported earlier this month.

Uber’s Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan wrote in a blog post Wednesday that Greyball has been used for many purposes, including the testing of new features by employees, marketing promotions, fraud prevention, protecting its partners from physical harm, and deterring  riders using the app in violation of the company's terms of service. It will take some time to enforce the prohibition on targeting of officials, because of the way the company’s systems are configured, Sullivan wrote.

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