Now, Was That So Hard? Uber Gets DMV Permit for Self-Driving Cars

A self-driving Uber SUV, with Pennsylvania license plates, at Fourth and  Bryant streets in San Francisco on March 3, 2017.

A self-driving Uber SUV, with Pennsylvania license plates, at Fourth and Bryant streets in San Francisco on March 3, 2017. (Mark Fiore/KQED)

Uber’s self-driving cars will return to California’s roads, though the ride-hailing company doesn’t immediately plan to use them to pick up passengers.

The Department of Motor Vehicles announced Wednesday that it had granted the San Francisco-based company a permit to test two Volvo SUVs on public roads. Regulators also approved 48 people as backup drivers who must sit behind the wheel in case the prototype cars malfunction, agency spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said.

The permit resolves a conflict dating to December. That’s when Uber — an aggressive player in the race to bring the self-driving technology to the market — rolled out a pilot program in San Francisco. The DMV revoked the registrations for 16 Uber vehicles, shutting down the test.

Uber knew about the DMV’s requirement to receive permission before testing in public, but the company argued that its cars do not meet the state’s definition of an “autonomous vehicle” because they need a person to monitor them and intervene if needed. That argument raised eyebrows both among regulators and other companies with similar technology that did get permits.

The pilot program caught the state and San Francisco officials off guard. Amid a showdown that last several days, during which one self-driving Uber SUV drove through a red light on Third Street and the vehicles’ software reportedly failed to recognize stoplights on several other occasions, the California Attorney General’s Office threatened to haul Uber before a judge if the cars were not curbed immediately.

Uber responded by packing up its cars for Arizona, where it began picking up passengers last month.

Uber said in a statement Wednesday that it does not plan to ferry paying passengers in California for now, as it does in Pittsburgh and a Phoenix suburb.

Last week, the company said the DMV had restored registrations for two of its self-driving vehicles — presumably the same ones granted permits this week — and that those vehicles were being operated under human control in San Francisco as part of a mapping project to aid its autonomous car project.

The spokesperson said the company plans to resume self-driving operations in San Francisco at some point, but has no set timetable.

With the approval, Uber becomes the 26th company to have a self-driving car testing permit in California.

Dan Brekke of KQED News contributed to this post.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor