California regulators warned ride-hailing company Uber on Wednesday that it would face legal action if it did not immediately stop giving people in San Francisco rides in self-driving cars until it receives permission from the state.
Uber started a public pilot program in the morning, and hours later, the California Department of Motor Vehicles sent a letter saying that the service was illegal until Uber got a permit required for putting “autonomous vehicles” on public roads.
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.
In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet wrote that Uber “must cease” deploying the cars or face unspecified legal action.
Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Wednesday launch in Uber’s hometown expands a deployment of the cars it started in Pittsburgh in September. The testing lets everyday people experience the cars as Uber works to identify glitches before expanding the technology’s use in San Francisco and elsewhere.
Making the distinction on the definition of an autonomous vehicle is in line with Uber’s history of testing legal boundaries. Although the company has been around less than a decade, it has argued with authorities around the world about how much of its drivers’ histories should be covered in background checks and whether those drivers should be treated as contractors ineligible for employee benefits.
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