Uber, the quintessential disrupter, has standard method of crashing into a new market: set up shop with low prices and zero permits for drivers; get the locals hooked on cheap cab rides; strong-arm the local government into legalizing ridesharing, and then slowly raise prices to make profit and pay for the taxes it starts paying.
It’s a classic innovate first, ask permission later policy, and it’s worked in Montreal, Paris, New York, and basically anywhere else Uber has expanded. So it makes perfect sense that when it launched its self-driving car pilot program in San Francisco, Uber didn’t bother checking with the DMV first.
California has a very standard and reasonable program for companies wanting to test self-driving cars on public roads. It has been in place for years, and requires companies to seek approval before tests. It also requires those companies to issue monthly and yearly reports on progress, including data on any crashes or times that a human operator had to take control.
Despite 20 other self-driving car companies having no problems with these basic regulations, Uber decided that the law doesn’t apply to it. In a blog post, Uber uses faulty logic to argue that it doesn’t need a permit:
Finally, we understand that there is a debate over whether or not we need a testing permit to launch self-driving Ubers in San Francisco. We have looked at this issue carefully and we don’t believe we do. Before you think, “there they go again” let us take a moment to explain:
First, we are not planning to operate any differently than in Pittsburgh, where our pilot has been running successfully for several months. Second, the rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them. For us, it’s still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.
Uber is saying that because its cars aren’t ready to drive without human supervision, they don’t count as autonomous vehicles. Never mind that Uber itself describes the test vehicles as “Self-Driving Ubers,” and they absolutely meet the definition of an autonomous vehicle that the DMV uses, that an “Autonomous vehicle” means any vehicle equipped with autonomous technology that has been integrated into that vehicle, excepting collision-avoidance systems like automatic braking.
Uber is doing exactly the same kind of testing that Google has been conducting for years, but it’s now using a technicality to say the rules don’t apply to it. It might be that the permitting process would slow down Uber’s development; equally likely is that Uber doesn’t want to publicly disclose data on crashes or disengagements of the self-driving tech.
Either way, it seems clear that this is just another case of Uber moving first, and dealing with pesky regulations later. It’s even more clear-cut in this case, because normally Uber is arguing that it is operating a ridesharing service rather than a taxi service, so any laws applicable to the taxi industry don’t apply to its fleet of non-employees.
But in this case, Uber is taking a law that was specifically designed for self-driving car testing, and saying that it doesn’t apply to its own self-driving car program because of a technicality in language.
To its credit, the Californian DMV isn’t having any of it. In a statement, the DMV doesn’t pull punches:
We have a permitting process in place to ensure public safety as this technology is being tested. Twenty manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.
We’ll have to see how this plays out, but it doesn’t look good for Uber.
Update: According to an Associated Press report, the California DMV is indeed not buying whatever Uber’s trying to sell:
“In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, DMV officials wrote that Uber “must cease” deploying the cars or face unspecified legal action.
Uber knew about the permit requirement but argued that its cars do not meet the state’s definition of an “autonomous vehicle” because they require a person behind the wheel to monitor and intervene if needed.”