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DMV Prompts Uber to Put the Brakes on Self-Driving Cars in San Francisco

Uber pulled its self-driving Volvos off the roads in San Francisco on Wednesday, a week after they began picking up passengers, as the Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the cars' registrations.

By Trisha Thadani

Uber pulled its self-driving Volvos off the roads in San Francisco on Wednesday, a week after they began picking up passengers, as the Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the cars' registrations.

"It was determined that the registrations were improperly issued for these vehicles because they were not properly marked as test vehicles," the DMV said in a statement following a meeting of the agency, Uber and the California attorney general's office.

The ride-hailing company had angered state and local officials by refusing to get a permit to operate the self-driving cars. Since the pilot began on Dec. 14, San Franciscans have flagged several incidents involving the self-driving Ubers, from running red lights to making right turns through bike lanes -- even though cars had human operators in them too.

Uber's next move is unclear, but the company has stopped the pilot and may now send its 16 self-driving Volvo XC90s elsewhere. Uber still has the option of applying for a DMV permit.

"We're now looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules," an Uber spokeswoman said in an email.

San Francisco officials applauded the DMV's action.

"I have always been a strong supporter of innovation and autonomous vehicle development and testing, but only under conditions that put human, bicyclist and pedestrian safety first," Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement.

San Francisco resident James Sword said that, as a frequent bicyclist in the city, he is relieved that Uber can no longer operate the autonomous vehicles until the state deems them safe.

"Uber as an organization has been thumbing its nose at regulations from the beginning," Sword, 39, said. "I don't have any confidence that the self-driving cars will be any safer, and not create any hazards."

The showdown began Dec. 14 when Uber announced that it would deploy self-driving cars to pick up paying passengers in San Francisco.

The DMV swiftly sent Uber a strongly worded letter that it "must cease" using self-driving vehicles until getting the appropriate permit. Uber pushed back, saying its vehicles do not fit the DMV's definition of "autonomous" because they still require a human to operate them.

The state attorney general's office threatened court action to get the cars off the road. The DMV noted that 20 companies, including Google and Tesla Motors, have received permission to operate an overall total of 130 test vehicles, and they are "obeying the law."

The DMV said Wednesday that Uber is "welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else" provided that it gets a permit, with applications potentially taking less than 72 hours to process.

So far, Uber has balked. Under the DMV's testing regulations, manufacturers are required to report when one of their autonomous vehicles is involved in a traffic accident. Such reports are made public. Uber has insisted that it is declining to register on the principle that its vehicles need human operators and cannot fully drive themselves -- not to avoid reporting accidents.

The cars quickly came under fire in San Francisco when a video circulated online that appeared to show one of the retrofitted Volvos running a red light. A few similar reports also surfaced; Uber has attributed the red-light issues to human error.

"Our roads are confusing, and you can't just be doing what you want to do," San Francisco Board of Supervisors President London Breed said Wednesday evening. "This is a new industry, it's evolving, and we need to understand how this impacts public safety."

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has said the cars make illegal and unsafe right turns through bike lanes. Uber said earlier this week that it is working on this problem and had instructed drivers to take control for that type of turn.

This clash is reminiscent of Uber's early days, when it began offering its ride-hailing service in cities nationwide without local permission. The company argued that its approach to ride-hailing was fundamentally different and therefore it was exempt from rules governing taxis.

But this case was much more extreme, experts said.

"When (Uber) first started putting cars on the road, it was doing the same thing as taxis," said Dennis Cusack, a partner in the Insurance Recovery group for Farella Braun + Martel LLP, a San Francisco-based law firm. "In the case of self-driving cars, the technology is so new that consumer confidence is -- and will be -- an issue."

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said autonomous vehicles are an inevitable part of the city's future that can eventually make the roads safer.

But now, with the DMV's decision, he said Uber has an opportunity to step back and "do things the right way."

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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