Uber Defies Ban on Self-Driving Cars

John Lister's picture

Taxicab-rival Uber says it will ignore orders to stop using self-driving cars to pick up passengers. It disputes a Department of Motor Vehicle statement that it requires a test permit to use such vehicles.

Uber has long caused controversy with its attitude to regulations. Its service uses an app to let customers book a vehicle driven by a private individual, with Uber handling the payment, providing navigation directions and taking a commission. That set-up often means it doesn't face the same level of regulation as licensed taxi cabs, which can pick up customers on the street without a prior booking.

The company recently started letting passengers in San Francisco opt to be driven in a Volvo XC90 that includes self-driving features. As with other such vehicles being tested on public roads, it has a facility for a human driver to quickly take control and override the automated driving if necessary. The Uber vehicles in question do have a human driver sitting at the wheel to fulfill such a role.

Red Light Jump Raises Concerns

Shortly after Uber launched the option, one of the self-driving cars was caught on camera jumping a red light, something Uber says was in fact down to human error. The resulting publicity quickly attracted the attention of the DMV, which immediately ordered Uber to stop using the vehicles in self-driving mode until they had a test permit.

The permit scheme only costs $150 to cover up to 10 vehicles. However, companies getting a permit must have heavy insurance and must keep state officials informed about any crashes or cases where the human driver takes control.

Letter Of Law In Our Favor Claims Uber

Uber has refused to apply for a permit, saying the wording of the relevant regulations mean they only cover cases where cars could operate "without the active physical control or monitoring of a human operator." According to Uber, although it uses the term "self-driving car", the way it uses the technology requires a human to be on hand and thus the permit rules don't apply. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

California state officials say that if Uber continues to ignore the demand, it may launch legal action that could mean it would be in contempt of court if it carried on using the cars. (Source: vanityfair.com)

What's Your Opinion?

Is Uber right to ignore the permit rules? Is it fair to quibble over the wording of such regulations or should the principle take priority? Should rules on testing self-driving vehicles be tighter or looser than they currently are?

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Dennis Faas's picture

Based on this article I could certainly see a possibility of Uber using an army of self-driving cars to take over the entire Taxi cab driver business - though, Google will likely step in before that happens and destroy the competition. We'll see.

That said: a self driving car is a self driving car, even with a human being sitting at the wheel. How long do you think it would take for the human driver to figure out that the car is about to bolt through a red light? Most of the time it's split decision making and I doubt very much most people would have the time and/or want to change course.

sytruck_8413's picture

They were told that if they didn't comply, the registration on their "self driving cars' would be revoked. They complied.