Uber Defies California Regulators With Self-Driving Car Service


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A self-driving Uber vehicle. Over California regulators’ objections, the company is testing the vehicles without obtaining state permits, as companies like Google and Tesla have done.

For seven years, Uber’s stance on complying with regulations has been consistent: Ask forgiveness, not permission.

On Friday, the ride-hailing company stuck to that position. It said it had no intention of ending a new test of its self-driving vehicles in San Francisco, even though California regulators had said the service was illegal because Uber had not obtained the necessary permits. Uber said its self-driving cars were still on the road and picking up passengers.

The dispute is rooted in Uber’s refusal to seek a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which would allow it to test autonomous vehicles under certain conditions. Companies like Google, Tesla Motors and Mercedes-Benz have all gotten such permits.

Uber officials contend that under the letter of California law, the company does not need a permit because the motor vehicles department defines autonomous vehicles as those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its modified, self-driving Volvo XC90s require human oversight, and therefore do not fit California’s definition of an autonomous vehicle.

“This rule just doesn’t apply to us,” Anthony Levandowski, vice president of Uber’s advanced technologies group, said in a conference call with reporters. “You don’t need to wear a belt and suspenders and whatever else if you’re wearing a dress.”

The motor vehicles department did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But in a letter to Uber on Friday, lawyers in the California attorney general’s office reiterated the state’s position that the company pull the self-cars off the road until it got the permits or face unspecified consequences.

The episode serves the latest volley in Uber’s war with local and state regulators — not only in the United States, but in many of the more than 70 countries in which the company operates. Uber has previously grappled with the authorities in California over safety concerns. And Otto, the self-driving trucking start-up founded by Mr. Levandowski and acquired by Uber in August, has flouted state laws in Nevada in the past.

Uber argues the way its technology is used differs little from the way Tesla Motors, the electric carmaker founded by Elon Musk, uses its technology. Tesla offers a driver-assistance system called Autopilot, which gives drivers the ability to “match speed to traffic conditions, keep within a lane, automatically change lanes without requiring driver input,” according to the company’s website.

As of Dec. 8, Tesla held a permit in California for autonomous-vehicle testing. Uber said that permit did not apply to the wider commercial use of self-driving cars bought by consumers, and that the motor vehicle department’s decision-making process should be consistent across the types of vehicles on the road.

“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,” Mr. Levandowski said.

A Tesla spokeswoman declined to comment.

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