By Carolyn Said
Uber plans to end all autonomous-car testing in California for the foreseeable future, according to a letter from the state Department of Motor Vehicles to the company.
The move follows a March 18 crash in Tempe, Ariz., in which an Uber car operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian. After that fatality, the ride-hailing company temporarily suspended its driverless car testing in Tempe, Pittsburgh, Toronto and San Francisco, the four cities where it operates the cars.
In conversations between the state agency and Uber since the crash, "Uber has indicated that it will not renew its current permit to test autonomous vehicles in California," said the letter from Brian Soublet, DMV deputy director and chief counsel, to Austin Heyworth, a public affairs manager for Uber. Uber's permit will expire Saturday, the letter said.
Before the company can resume autonomous testing in California, it must apply for a new permit. "Any application for a new permit will need to address any follow-up analysis or investigations from the recent crash in Arizona and may also require a meeting with the department," Soublet wrote.
Uber said it chose not to renew its California testing permit because it knew the application would not be considered until the Tempe probe had concluded. The National Transportation Safety Board and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are working with Tempe police on that investigation.
"We decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future," Uber said in a statement.
Jim McPherson, a Benicia attorney and founder of SafeSelfDrive, an industry consultancy, pointed out that the federal investigation could easily take a year.
"Without having the benefit of NTSB's conclusions, Uber was unlikely to be able to answer the California DMV's questions," he said in an email. "Whether this means Uber is folding its autonomous vehicle program remains to be seen."
California requires all autonomous vehicle makers to get special registrations for their vehicles and the cars' operators, to submit reports of all accidents, and to produce an annual report on "disengagements," situations in which the human operator needed to take over from the robot one. Uber has not yet had to produce such a report.
The New York Times reported Friday that Uber's cars were struggling to meet the company's target of one operator intervention per 13 miles in Arizona. Cars from Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, which has logged the most self-driving miles of any company, went about 5,600 miles between interventions in California, according to its disengagement reports.
Uber said that concerns about having to file disengagement reports were not a factor in its California withdrawal.
This is what OVER-regulation looks like! #ditchcalifornia https://t.co/RMbUkQY9ek
-- Doug Ducey (@dougducey) December 22, 2016
Arizona has portrayed itself as a more welcoming, less regulated environment for self-driving cars. Uber tangled with the California DMV in late 2016, when it started testing self-driving cars here without the required permits.
After the DMV said it would revoke the cars' registrations, Uber pulled them out of the state to shift those tests to Arizona.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey gloated in a tweet accompanying a story about the Uber cars leaving California: "This is what OVER-regulation looks like! #ditchcalifornia."
On Monday, Ducey suspended Uber from testing self-driving cars in Arizona, saying a dashcam video of the Tempe collision was "disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona."
Uber has been testing autonomous cars in San Francisco -- with permits -- for a year. It has about 20 self-driving Volvo XC90s housed in a warehouse at Pier 70, where some 300 employees of its Advanced Technologies Group work. Three weeks ago, it started a free robot-taxi service for those employees to commute to and from work.
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