California says Uber autonomous car test needs a permit first

One of the Uber cars also reportedly ran a red light in San Francisco

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has asked Uber Technologies to first get a permit for testing its self-driving cars on the roads of San Francisco, something that the company has so far refused to do.

The DMV said it encourages the responsible exploration of autonomous cars, but has a permit process for testing the technology to ensure public safety. “Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same,” the agency said in a statement.

Having started testing its self-driving cars with ride-hailing customers in Pittsburgh in September, the ride-hailing company decided to extend the tests to San Francisco starting Wednesday. “Starting today, riders who request an uberX in San Francisco will be matched with a Self-Driving Uber if one is available,” Uber wrote in a blog post.

But the company contested the need for a permit to run the tests, stating that 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 the post.

When starting its trials in Pittsburgh too, the company said its “Self-Driving Ubers” have a driver in the front seat because the vehicles require human intervention in many conditions such as bad weather.

But the DMV did not agree with Uber. It cites California regulations that it said establish that a permit is required for testing an autonomous vehicle on public roads, and threatened legal action if Uber did not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and get a permit.

“The permitting requirement serves the important public policy objectives of ensuring that those testing the vehicles have provided an adequate level of financial responsibility; have adequately trained qualified test drivers on the safe operation of the autonomous technology; and will notify the DMV when the vehicles have been involved in a collision and specify the instances when the technology had to be disengaged for safety reasons,” the DMV wrote in a letter to Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's Advanced Technology Group, obtained by some news outlets.

Uber did not immediately comment on the DMV’s letter or respond to a request for information on whether the company would pull its automated cars from the road until it gets a permit for testing the vehicles.

The company’s trials in San Francisco, besides running foul of regulators, reportedly had another hitch. One of its cars - a Volvo XC90 - was caught on camera running a red light, according to news reports. The company later said that the vehicle was not part of the pilot.

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