California regulators have successfully contested the legality of Uber’s small fleet of self-driving automobiles in San Francisco.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles demanded that Uber immediately stop the use of their self-driving vehicles, claiming the ride-hailing company was in violation of DMV permit requirements.
Mere hours after the inaugural luxury self-driving Volvo SUVs hit the streets of San Francisco on December 14, Uber received a letter from the DMV warning them that they were violating DMV policy by not obtaining special permits that would allow them to put autonomous vehicles on public roads.
The distinctive-looking Volvos, with their prominent sensors atop the SUV, roamed San Francisco streets for approximately a week before Uber relented to California regulators after they threatened legal action and numerous reports of traffic violations by the vehicles were reported.
Uber was aware of the special permit requirement, but contested their need for it saying their vehicles require a human to monitor and possibly intervene from behind the wheel, therefore, not meeting the state’s definition of an autonomous vehicle.
Uber’s testing of legal parameters by over-scrutinizing the definition of an autonomous vehicle is not unprecedented. The company has butted heads with authorities in California and all over the world about such issues as criminal background checks for drivers and if drivers should be classified as contractors or employees.
The argument is founded on whether the vehicles- with sensors allowing them to navigate, accelerate, brake, and decide to change lanes- are, by legal definition, “autonomous vehicles.”
The state of California says yes. However, Uber points to the part of the law saying a vehicle needs a special permit if it can drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a” human being.
The head of Uber’s self-driving program, Anthony Levandowski says that because Uber’s vehicles still require human monitoring, they are not truly autonomous and therefore, do not need a permit.
Twenty companies- mostly tech companies and traditional car makers- have already been issued permits by the state of California for testing of their autonomous vehicles on public roads. Companies must provide proof of insurance, a $150 fee, and agree that a human can take control of the automobile to obtain a permit.
An attorney for the DMV argued, that in addition to being legal protocol, the permits also help to assure the public that the self-driving technology is safe. Companies that have a permit are required to report every crash and each instance that a human takes control of the vehicle to the state.
Although Uber is based in San Francisco, Levandowski has threatened to take the self-driving service to other cities that would be more receptive to the technological innovation.
The self-driven rides cost the same as traditional rides and have an Uber employee behind the wheel in the event of technology failure.
Although they do not offer rides to the public, several other companies frequently test their self-driving technology on San Francisco streets. By launching its Volvo XC90s in San Francisco, Uber was hoping to expand the deployment of self-driving vehicles it started in Pittsburg last September allowing the public to experience the technology while it continues to work out glitches.
The ultimate goal is to provide the public with technology that never tires, drinks, texts, or makes risky maneuvers behind the wheel- preventing thousands of traffic fatalities each year.
A recent fatal accident involving a self-driving car led many in the auto industry to question the true safety of self-driving cars. Yet, after an intensive investigation, the NHTSA found that the owner of the Model S Sedan Tesla ignored the warnings and that there was no default in the self-driving system. This was a win for safety regulators, as well as the auto industry who have invested billions of dollars in a safer mode of transportation for the future.
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