California Pulls The Plug On Uber's Self-Driving Car Experiment

The state simply yanked the vehicle registrations.

California has shut down Uber’s short trial of self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco a week after the first of those vehicles blew through a red light. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles yanked the registration of all 16 cars in the program on Wednesday.

State officials and Uber executives had been wrangling over permits for the cars amid California’s concerns about their safety. Authorities ordered Uber to obtain the same special permit as the other 20 companies testing self-driving technology in the state.

But Uber refused to apply for the $150 permits, arguing that its vehicles aren’t sophisticated enough to be fully autonomous so they don’t fall under autonomous-vehicle regulations (although the company touts the vehicles as “self-driving”). Executives pointed out that humans must monitor the cars at all times — as is the case with other self-driving cars currently on California roads, government officials noted.

The state attorney general threatened legal action against the company. Then the DMV yanked the cars’ standard registrations because they weren’t specifically issued for test vehicles. That automatically gave police the authority to confiscate the cars, forcing Uber to shut down the operation.

“The registrations were improperly issued for these vehicles because they were not properly marked for test vehicles,” the DMV said in a statement. “The department invited Uber to seek a permit so their vehicles can operate legally in California.”

“We have stopped our self-driving pilot in California as the DMV has revoked the registrations for our self-driving cars,” Uber said in a responding statement. “We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

Uber has a history of skirting the law and has tangled with authorities before over labor regulations and requirements for background checks on its drivers. Dodging the special permit in California saved it money in the short run and could have placed it ahead of rivals constrained by pretesting requirements and reporting regulations. The state’s special permit requires companies to report all accidents to the DMV, as well as all episodes when a car’s autonomous mode is disconnected because of some incident. Such records are available to the public.

The company has been operating self-driving cars for several months in Pittsburgh, where it faces no such reporting requirements.

Witnesses in San Francisco said they saw the Uber cars run red lights. In a statement to The Huffington Post, Uber blamed error by the human operator in the car for the first incident, which was captured by the dashcam of a taxi driving behind the Uber vehicle.

Bicyclists also complained that the cars made sharp right turns across bike lanes directly ahead of them. The company conceded that the bike lane problem arose from a software flaw in its cars.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he was pleased about the DMV’s move.

“I have always been a strong supporter of innovation and autonomous vehicle development and testing, but only under conditions that put human, bicyclist and pedestrian safety first,” he said in a statement Wednesday evening.

The success of Uber’s driverless cars is critical to the company’s future, according to analysts. Although its revenue continues to climb, the company reported a $800 million loss for the third quarter of 2016.

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