State Attorney General threatens legal action against Uber over self-driving cars

The California State Attorney General’s office today said it plans to take legal action against Uber if the ride-booking company does not immediately remove its self-driving vehicles from San Francisco city streets, where they have been operating since Wednesday without a state permit.

In a letter sent to Uber Vice President Anthony Levandowski this afternoon, the attorney general’s office said it would “seek injunctive and other appropriate relief” if Uber does not comply.

The legal action comes shortly after an Uber news teleconference this afternoon in which Levandowski said the company would not stop operating the self-driving cars or seek a state permit as demanded by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Uber announced on Wednesday that it would begin offering UberX customers service in “self-driving” Volvo XC90s in San Francisco, after operating a test run of similar service in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for several months.

However, the Department of Motor Vehicles issued a cease-and-desist letter later that same day ordering the company to stop its test until it had obtained a state autonomous vehicle testing permit.

“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.”

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

The technology used in the cars is similar to autopilot used in Tesla vehicles and other traffic jam assist and safety systems already used in higher-end vehicles, Levandowski said.

“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.”

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.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has joined in the calls from the state for Uber to stop operating the self-driving vehicles in the city without a permit, and today said he had spoken directly to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about the matter.

“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,” Lee’s spokeswoman Ellen Canale said in a statement. “The mayor is working with the DMV, state officials and the City Attorney’s Office to explore all possible avenues available to use to enforce state law.”

The debut of Uber’s self-driving vehicles drew 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 unsafe turning issue in the self-driving vehicles.

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