Above, Uber's experimental self-driving car in Pittsburgh, Penn. An Uber-made self-driving car rolled through The City last week, but was being driven by a person. (Courtesy Uber)

Mayor Lee tells Uber to cease driverless car operations until correct permits are obtained

Mayor Ed Lee spoke with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Friday morning, telling him that the rideshare company must remove its driverless cars from the City’s streets until the DMV has issued them the proper permit.

The meeting came after Uber company officials rejected a demand by city and state officials that they obtain a state permit to operate their self-driving vehicles on San Francisco city streets, calling their refusal a “matter of principle.”

The company announced with great fanfare Wednesday that it would begin offering UberX customers in San Francisco rides in “self-driving” Volvo XC90s. The company said at that time that it did not believe it needed an autonomous vehicle testing permit because its cars required active monitoring by a human driver.

However, the Department of Motor Vehicles issued a cease-and-desist letter later that same day ordering the company to stop its test and threatening legal action if it did not comply.

“Had Uber obtained an autonomous vehicle testing permit prior to today, the company’s launch would have been permissible,” the letter from DMV deputy director and chief counsel Brian Soublet read. “However, it is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit.”

“Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner to the city of San Francisco by choosing to put Uber’s self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown,” read a statement from the Mayor’s Office. “While the roads of San Francisco are regulated by the state and the DMV, safety knows no jurisdiction. The Mayor is working with the DMV, state officials and the City Attorney’s office to explore all possible avenues available to us to enforce state law.”

“Mayor Lee has been a strong supporter of the advancement and development of autonomous vehicle technology, which must include appropriate state regulation and guarantees of public safety,” his office said.

Today, Uber Vice President Anthony Levandowski argued that the “self-driving” vehicles did not qualify as “autonomous vehicles” under state law because they cannot drive without “active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.”

Levandoski said the technology used in the cars is similar to autopilot used in Teslas and other traffic jam assist and safety systems already used in higher-end vehicles.

“The distinction between our Self-Driving Ubers and the autonomous vehicles described by California State law is not a legal nicety. Nor are we seeking to exploit some loophole in the law,” Levandoski said. “It’s an important issue of principle about when companies can operate self-driving cars on the roads and the uneven application of statewide rules across very similar types of technology.”

Uber has operated a similar test of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania over the past several months. Levandoski today also claimed that DMV officials have known for the past month that the company was already operating the vehicles on San Francisco streets.

The DMV has not yet responded to a request for comment on today’s statement from Uber.

The debut of Uber’s self-driving vehicles has drawn safety concerns following multiple reports of the vehicles running red lights. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition on Thursday also posted a statement from Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier saying that in a demonstration of the vehicles they took unsafe right turns through a bike lane more than once without merging properly.

“I told staff from Uber’s policy and engineering teams about the safety hazards of their autonomous vehicle technology. They told me they would work on it,” Wiedenmeier wrote. “Then, two days later, they unleashed their technology on San Francisco’s streets. Your streets.”

The coalition has launched a petition among its members calling on Uber to address the unsafe turning issue in the self-driving vehicles.

Bay City News contributed reporting to this story.

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