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On Friday afternoon, Uber held a press conference to say that it would not be applying for a permit with the California DMV to test its so-called self-driving cars, despite an order from the DMV to apply for a permit or halt its operations. Uber added that it is still pick up riders with self-driving Uber cars, despite the DMV’s demands.
“We respectfully disagree with the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ legal interpretations of existing regulations,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s Vice President of Advanced Technologies Group, said on the conference call. Levandowski added that Uber’s current technology was more akin to the Advanced Driver Assist System (ADAS) technology that’s found on Teslas in the form of autopilot software.
Tesla’s autopilot is not subject to the same scrutiny that more advanced autonomous vehicle software is.
The dispute between Uber and the DMV began on Wednesday, when Uber announced that it had added a handful of self-driving cars to its fleet.
As a redundancy, each self-driving car is sent out with an engineer in the driver’s seat, ready to take over if the vehicle struggles to drive on its own. Riders get a notification if they’re selected for a ride in one of Uber’s test cars, which they can accept or decline.
But the California DMV stated that Uber hadn’t submitted the proper permitting to put self-driving cars on the road.
By Wednesday night, the department told the ride-hailing company to stop (PDF) driving its self-driving cars on state roads until it got proper permission.
Uber maintains that it doesn’t need a permit, despite what California’s DMV says, for two reasons.
First, an engineer is required to be in the front seat at all times to operate the vehicle.
Second, California’s regulations state that autonomous vehicles are cars that can drive without “active physical control.” Uber says this murky definition is the sticking point.
“There has not been a clear description of when a vehicle goes from not-autonomous to autonomous,” Levandowski said on Friday afternoon, adding that “it’s not about picking a fight, it’s about doing the right thing, and we believe that bringing this technology to California is the right thing to do.”
Uber has already launched a pilot program in Pittsburgh, where regulators were largely approving of the test drives. When pressed about why Uber decided to test its cars in San Francisco instead of elsewhere in the country, Levandowski offered a variety of answers ranging from how he went to UC Berkeley and lives in Oakland, to how Uber was founded in San Francisco, to how Pittsburgh has tricky weather and San Francisco has tricky traffic patterns—both of which the cars could learn from.
Levandowski stressed that Uber’s current technology is not all that different from Tesla’s autopilot. “This type of technology is commonplace on thousands of cars driving in the Bay Area today, without any DMV permit at all,” he said.
“We’re not seeking to exploit some loophole in the law,” Levandowski continued, adding that the DMV is engaged in “uneven application of the same rules across similar types of technology.”
When asked why Uber couldn’t just get a permit through the DMV anyway, despite the company’s feeling that the rules don’t apply to the company’s software, Levandowski said that “if you’re driving a car, you don’t need a fish and game license… it’s not about paying the $100 fee, it’s just that it doesn’t apply to us.”
“We want to make sure that rules that don’t apply to technology don’t get enforced,” he said.
In the DMV’s letter to Uber on Wednesday night, the department said that if Uber did not comply with its demands for permitting, it would take legal action against the company, “including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief.”
Update: California’s DMV responded Friday afternoon to Uber’s comments with a letter from the California Attorney General (PDF) which asked Uber to “immediately remove its ‘self-driving’ vehicles from the state’s roadways until Uber complies with all applicable statues and regulations” (emphasis in the original).
“If Uber cannot advise the undersigned that it will immediately remove its self-driving vehicles from California public roadways until it obtains the appropriate permit, as 20 other companies have done, the Attorney General will seek injunctive and other appropriate relief.”