Uber tests California laws with driverless cars in San Francisco

The California Department of Motor Vehicles instructed Uber to acquire permits to test its self-driving cars, but the company has said it's not obligated to do so. 

Eric Risberg/AP
An Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco on Dec. 13, 2016. Uber is bringing a small number of self-driving cars to its ride-hailing service in San Francisco – a move likely to both excite the city’s tech-savvy population and spark a conflict with California regulators.

Uber will expand its self-driving taxi service to San Francisco, much to the ire of California regulators.

The ride-hailing company plans to bring a “handful” of its self-driving Volvo XC90s to the Bay Area, with an Uber employee ready to take the wheel if the technology fails. But Uber will carry out public tests without a stamp of approval from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

In a statement the DMV released late Tuesday, it said “it encourages the responsible exploration of self-driving cars” and noted 20 companies have received permits to test hundreds of cars in California.

“Uber shall do the same,” said the statement.

The testing of autonomous vehicles by carmakers and tech companies has created a conundrum for federal and state regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to draft policies and regulations. Meanwhile, California has placed limits on how companies can test these vehicles on public roads. But Uber argues its expansion falls outside California permit requirements because an employee will be behind the wheel at all times, even if they won’t be steering the car.

Uber’s cars do not require a permit because they aren’t advanced enough to drive themselves without human monitoring and, therefore aren't really autonomous, Anthony Levandowski, the leader of Uber’s self-driving program, told the Associated Press.

“We’re just not capable of doing that yet,” he said.  

The California law adopted in 2014 requires testers of “autonomous vehicles” to acquire a permit if the car can drive itself “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.”

The Volvo SUVs that Uber plans to test on the streets of San Francisco will involve passengers from the public. Users of the Uber app may be matched with a self-driving car at the same cost as a normal ride, although they can opt out if they prefer a human driver. The SUVs will be outfitted with sensors so they can navigate San Francisco’s hilly streets and avoid hordes of bicycle commuters.

The beta test will be an expansion from public tests in Pittsburgh that started this fall. In those tests, which also involve Uber’s Volvo SUVs, the company worked with local regulators before it rolled out the nation’s first fleet of self-driving taxis cars. But Uber didn’t have to ask the permission of state regulators because Pennsylvania lacks laws to regulate autonomous vehicles, not to mention semi-autonomous vehicles, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in September.

Uber is not the first company worldwide to publicly test self-driving cars, however. nuTonomy, a startup with offices in Massachusetts and Singapore, was the first, with tests in Singapore starting this summer. But self-driving Volvos could also be coming to London’s busy streets by 2017, with proposed legislation by Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, potentially allowing autonomous cars on the country’s roads by 2020.

"We realize that customers and traffic are very different around the world, so we think it's important to test in different environments to be prepared for the future, and London is a very, very large city where people spend lots of time in traffic jams, so we think it's an ideal place to continue learning," Erik Coelingh, a senior technical leader for safety and driver support at Volvo, told ZDNet in April.

But some regulators and observers are concerned about the safety of the technology. One emerging conversation is the security of these cars.

The German insurance company Munich Re said in July that 55 percent of the corporate risk managers it surveyed view cybersecurity as the biggest problem with driverless vehicles.

In another recent survey, the consulting firm Altman Vilandrie found that 64 percent of consumers would not purchase an automated vehicle, and 57 percent wouldn't even consider riding one, as Nathaniel Mott reported for the Monitor. 

In September, the Obama administration called on automakers to voluntarily submit details of their systems to regulators as part of proposed guidelines for the development of self-driving cars.

Apple then called on the NHTSA and other regulators in November not to impose too many restrictions on the testing of self-driving cars. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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