VIDEO: Uber says it will keep self-driving cars in San Francisco

In this photo taken Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, an Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. 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. The Wednesday, Dec. 14, launch in Uber’s hometown expands a public pilot program the company started in Pittsburgh in September. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

 

 

SAN FRANCISCO (KRON/AP) — Negotiations over whether Uber must stop its newly launched self-driving car service in San Francisco have concluded without a clear resolution, according to California transportation regulators.

The state has threatened legal action if the ride-hailing company continues to pick up passengers in a handful of cars without having gone through a permitting process. Uber says the cars are exempt from the permit requirement because they have a backup driver behind the wheel who must monitor the car’s performance.

In a media teleconference on Friday, Uber said it disagreed with the DMVs autonomous vehicle regulations because they do not feel their cars qualify as autonomous. Their self-driving cars require constant physical control or monitoring by a human, Uber said.

Uber said its self-driving cars are the same as Tesla’s cars, which don’t need permits.

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The technology used in the cars is similar to autopilot used in Tesla vehicles and other traffic jam assist and safety systems already used in higher-end vehicles, Uber Vice President Anthony Levandowski said.

“The distinction between our Self-Driving Ubers and the autonomous vehicles described by California State law is not a legal nicety. Nor are we seeking to exploit some loophole in the law,” Levandoski said. “It’s an
important issue of principle about when companies can operate self-driving cars on the roads and the uneven application of statewide rules across very similar types of technology.”

Levandoski Friday also claimed that DMV officials have known for the past month that the company was already operating the vehicles on San Francisco streets.

Uber also said it has asked for clarification from the DMV as to why the cars need a permit. The company has not gotten a response back, Uber said.

Uber is not trying to exploit a loophole, the company said. It feels the application of the rules is uneven.

State officials had a “positive conversation” Thursday with Uber about “how the company plans to comply with state regulations for self-driving vehicles,” Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for California’s State Transportation Agency, told The Associated Press. Talks will resume Friday morning, she said.

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Uber did not immediately reply to requests for comment on Thursday.

Meanwhile, the cars could be seen traveling San Francisco’s streets Thursday evening.

STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL THREATENS LEGAL ACTION

The California State Attorney General’s office Friday said it plans to take legal action against Uber if the ride-booking company does not immediately remove its self-driving vehicles from San Francisco city streets,
where they have been operating since Wednesday without a state permit.

In a letter sent to Levandowski Friday afternoon, the attorney general’s office said it would “seek injunctive and other appropriate relief” if Uber does not comply.

The legal action comes shortly after an Uber news teleconference Friday afternoon in which Levandowski said the company would not stop operating the self-driving cars or seek a state permit as demanded by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

RED LIGHT WARNING

The two sides met privately in Sacramento the same day that dash cam video posted online showed a self-driving Uber run a red light on Wednesday, the same day the company launched the pilot program with several Volvo SUVs.

On Thursday, Uber said in a written statement that the driver was suspended and attributed the infraction in front of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to “human error.” That was an apparent reference to the company’s policy that employees behind the wheel of the cars must constantly monitor them and be prepared to take over if the technology stops working, or is about to do something dangerous or illegal.

Far from playing defense, Uber offered the driver’s failure as evidence of the need to continue pushing ahead a technology that proponents say will one day drive far more safely than humans.

“This is why we believe so much in making the roads safer by building self-driving Ubers,” the company said in a written statement, which said the red light-running car was not one of those in its pilot program and was not carrying passengers.

Getting a permit is not a complicated or lengthy process, and regulators would likely approve Uber’s application, as they have permits for 20 other companies.

Instead, Uber has insisted it will not apply out of principle, saying its cars do not meet the state’s legal definition of an “autonomous vehicle” and therefore do not need a permit.

Though the cars are tricked out with sensors so they can steer, accelerate and brake, and even decide to change lanes, Uber says they are not nearly good enough to drive without human monitoring. And, according to Uber’s reading of state law, that means they are not, legally speaking, “autonomous vehicles” that need special state permission.

PUSHING THE LEGAL LIMIT

Pushing legal boundaries is a proud tradition at Uber. During its meteoric rise into a multibillion dollar company, Uber has argued with authorities in California and around the world about issues including driver criminal background checks and whether those drivers should be treated as contractors ineligible for employee benefits.

Both the California Department of Motor Vehicles and its parent transportation agency insist Uber is wrong — and hours after the self-driving service’s launch the state sent a letter saying the service was illegal because it lacked the permits.

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“If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action,” DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet wrote the company. He referenced the possibility of taking Uber to court.

“Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit prior to Friday, the company’s launch would have been permissible,” the letter from Soublet read. “However, it is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit.”

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee joined the chorus of officials denouncing the move, calling it unlawful and ill-advised in a statement. Lee said he was worried about the safety of the city’s cyclists and pedestrians, especially with the experiment launching in a week when streets are slick with rain.

Meanwhile, the company is sending another message to California: Other places want us if you don’t.

In a blog post Wednesday, the leader of its self-driving efforts, Anthony Levandowski, warned that “complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation” and named several places outside California he characterized as being “pro technology.”


Lee’s press office issued the following statement to KRON4 on Thursday:

This morning Mayor Lee spoke directly to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and expressly warned that Uber must remove its autonomous vehicles from San Francisco’s streets until the proper permit is obtained from the State of California.

The Mayor maintains the position that Uber stop the testing of autonomous vehicles in San Francisco until an appropriate permit is obtained from the DMV.

Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner to the city of San Francisco by choosing to put Uber’s self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown.

While the roads of San Francisco are regulated by the state and the DMV, safety knows no jurisdiction. The Mayor is working with the DMV, state officials and the city attorney’s office to explore all possible avenues available to us to enforce state law.

Mayor Lee has been a strong supporter of the advancement and development of autonomous vehicle technology, which must include appropriate state regulation and guarantees of public safety.

And another earlier on Thursday.

The Mayor demands Uber stop the unpermitted ad unlawful testing of autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco until they obtain the appropriate permitting from the DMV.

The Mayor expects Uber to do what is required by law and obtain a permit from the DMV, just like every other company testing autonomous vehicles in San Francisco.

This is not just a matter of following the law, it’s a matter of public safety. Our primary concern is keeping our streets safe for pedestrians, cyclists and other motorists. Street safety is especially important this week as San Francisco deals with inclement weather.

BICYCLE COLATION REACTS:

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition on Thursday also posted a statement from Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier saying that in a demonstration of the vehicles they took unsafe right turns through a bike
lane more than once without merging properly.

“I told staff from Uber’s policy and engineering teams about the safety hazards of their autonomous vehicle technology. They told me they would work on it,” Wiedenmeier wrote. “Then, two days later, they unleashed their technology on San Francisco’s streets. Your streets.”

The coalition has launched a petition among its members calling on Uber to address unsafe turning issue in the self-driving vehicles.

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Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Contact him at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman.

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