Uber will continue operating self-driving cars on San Francisco streets, defying California regulators that claim it’s running the program illegally.
In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Uber’s vice president of advanced technologies, Anthony Levandowski, said that the company stands by its argument that its cars do not meet the definition of autonomous vehicles.
Despite using the moniker “self-driving”, the cars are not capable of driving without the active monitoring of a human in the front seat, Levandowski said.
Instead, Uber is arguing that its cars are more aligned with electric car maker Tesla’s autopilot feature — an advanced driver assistance system, but not a car that’s fully autonomous.
“The problem is that it doesn’t apply to us. There’s no reason to get regulations,” Levandowski said. “You don’t need to get belts and suspenders or whatever else if you’re wearing a dress.”
The California DMV did not respond to a request for comment.
Uber’s defiance of the regulations comes at a time of heightened public concern around the new technology. On the same day that Uber began testing its self-driving cars with the public this week, one of the vehicles was seen running a red light as a pedestrian entered the crosswalk (Uber has said the incident was the result of human error, and that the automated driving feature was not enabled at the time).
How the feud began
The public spat between Uber and California regulators began on Wednesday when the company launched a new self-driving car pilot similar to the program it’s already running in Pittsburgh.
As part of the pilot, Uber riders who request an UberX have a chance to be matched with a self-driving vehicle. While a trained driver and engineer still have to sit in the front seat and be ready to take over the controls at a moment’s notice, the goal is to have the fleet of a dozen or so vehicles largely driving themselves through the compact and crowded streets of a big city.
Yet, Uber and the California DMV immediately started trading barbs over whether or not its car program should be permitted under California regulations. The DMV put out a statement saying that Uber “shall” get the permit to test its self-driving vehicles on public roads, but the company told Business Insider at the time that it had no plans whatsoever to apply for a permit since it didn’t believe its cars fit the state’s definition of autonomous vehicles. Under the regulations, advanced autopilot systems, like Tesla’s, are not regulated whereas Google’s testing of its autonomous vehicle adheres to strict rules.
“When we look at how the Tesla vehicles operate, we see us operating in the same exact manner,” Levandowski said.
The DMV has disagreed with this from the start. The agency sent Uber a letter on Wednesday afternoon, hours after the testing had started, telling the ride-hailing company to stop the launch of its self-driving car pilot or face legal action.
“Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit prior to today, the company’s launch would have been permissible,” the DMV said. “… If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action, including, but not limited to, seeking injunctive relief.”
The California DMV did not respond to request for comment on whether it was planning to initiate legal action now that Uber has publicly said it “respectfully disagrees” with the decision.
For now, Levandowski said the pilot program and the self-driving testing cars will remain on California roads for the foreseeable future.