California slams brakes on Uber self-driving cars

State regulators Thursday ordered ride-booking firm Uber to stop operating self-driving vehicles on San Francisco city streets only hours after the service launched because the company failed to get a permit.

Uber this morning announced it would begin booking passengers using the company’s “UberX” service in self-driving Volvo XC90s, three months after it began a similar test in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The vehicles are manned by a test driver, according to the company.

However, the company immediately ran afoul of state Department of Motor Vehicles officials, who said the company had failed to obtain an autonomous vehicle-testing permit as required by state law.

The permits are intended to ensure the operators take financial responsibility for any issues, use adequately trained test drivers and notify the DMV when collisions occur, according to the DMV. A total of 20 other companies have been approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles in the state.

DMV attorneys issued a letter this afternoon demanding Uber immediately cease operating its self-driving vehicles until it obtains the necessary permit and threatening legal action if Uber fails to comply:

“The DMV fully supports the advancement of autonomous technologies. … This technology holds the promise of true safety benefits on our roadways, but must be tested responsibly.”

Uber officials did not respond to a request for comment this afternoon on the DMV letter, but appeared to anticipate the issue in a statement issued Thursday¬†morning, noting that they understood that there was a “debate” over whether they needed a testing permit:

“We have looked at the issue carefully and we don’t believe we do.”

The company argued that it has operated a similar pilot successfully in Pittsburgh for several months:

“Second, the rules apply to cars that can drive without someone controlling or monitoring them. … For us, its still early days and our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”

The self-driving cars were already generating some controversy in their first day of operation in San Francisco even before the DMV stepped in.

A video posted on Youtube by user Charles Rotter, taken from the dashboard camera of a Luxor Taxi, allegedly shows one of the vehicles running a red light, while Twitter user Annie Gaus tweeted that she had just seen a similar incident on Van Ness while riding in a Lyft vehicle.