Uber Dismissed Warnings About Its Illegal Self-Driving Test for Months, Emails Show
Last December, Uber’s self-driving cars hit the rain-slicked streets of San Francisco with much fanfare. It was meant to be a watershed moment — the upstart ride-hail company bringing autonomous driving to its city of origin, years before most experts predicted we’d begin to see self-driving cars en masse.
But it turned out to be a total flop. A week after Uber’s fleet of 16 luxury Volvo XC90 SUVs started picking up passengers, the program was brought to a grinding halt. The California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked Uber’s vehicle registrations after Uber refused to obtain a $150 permit authorizing it to test driverless cars in the state. And rather than correct what on the surface seemed like a clerical error, Uber refused to get licensed, instead shipping its autonomous fleet to Arizona where it could test its self-driving cars with less public scrutiny.
It turns out that all this drama was preordained months in advance. According to a lengthy email exchange between Uber and the DMV obtained by The Verge from a public records request, Uber was repeatedly urged to sign up for the state’s autonomous testing permit, with the DMV even offering to expedite the process to make it as quick and seamless as possible. Had it done so, Uber could have saved itself a lot of embarrassment and could be offering trips in self-driving cars in San Francisco right now.
But in multiple emails to the DMV, Anthony Levandowski, vice president at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group and the company’s top executive in charge of autonomous technology, argued that what it was doing did not meet the legal definition of autonomous vehicle testing, spurring a brain-bending debate over the letter of the law. The debate ended inconclusively, and Uber ultimately launched its doomed public pilot without ever notifying state regulators of its intentions to invite members of the public into the backseat of its self-driving cars.