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Uber Pulls Self-Driving Cars From California Roads

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

After a fight with the state of California, the ride service Uber has pulled its fleet of self-driving cars from San Francisco's streets. The company announced that decision yesterday about a week after the pilot project started. California officials had repeatedly objected to Uber's project. They said the company had failed to get the required permit.

To talk about this, I'm joined by Queena Kim. She covers Silicon Valley for member station KQED. Hiya.

QUEENA KIM, BYLINE: Hey.

SIEGEL: And explain to us this dispute between Uber and the state of California. What's behind it?

KIM: Yeah, so self-driving cars here in California have to be registered with the DMV. Uber is arguing that their car isn't really self-driving. They have a driver behind the wheel that can take over if the computer malfunctions. Also they're saying that the technology isn't totally self-driving, so the car can't just go out and drive itself.

Well, the DMV didn't buy that argument. And then we entered unchartered territory. 'Cause it's totally unclear what the enforcement mechanism would be, the state attorney general threatened to sue. And you know, that can take a really long time. And so Uber exploited this uncertainty and continued to run its pilot.

Well, we got an answer yesterday about what the state can do. And the DMV pulled the registrations for these cars. And if you're not registered, you can't be on the streets.

SIEGEL: This also comes after there was a video taken of one of these cars running a red light.

KIM: Yes. The company is saying that that was driver error, and it wasn't the computer. And there were also some complaints amongst bicyclists that the car made these - what's called an unsafe right hook, which means at the last minute just sort of veers into the bike lane when it makes a right turn which obviously is unsafe if there's a biker there.

SIEGEL: Now, I understand that Uber objected to being required to register, and they claim that their car isn't fully self-driving. It seems as though getting a permit could have been - other people have done it. Is there any other reason people think Uber might be resisting this process?

KIM: So we're sort of in the area of speculation here 'cause they haven't really drilled into why they're not doing this. One idea that was floated out there is that this might give them a competitive advantage.

If you register your car with the DMV, you have to start giving out these incident reports every time the car does something wrong or the driver has to take over, if it gets into an accident. These reports are all public. And right now, the self-driving car space is really competitive. And so I imagine if you don't tell your competitors everything that went wrong, that gives you an advantage.

SIEGEL: Uber has had self-driving cars on the road in Pittsburgh since September. Why does the company's relationship with regulators in California seem to be worse than it is in Pennsylvania?

KIM: Well, as you know, Pittsburgh is an old steel town, and it's been trying to redefine itself as a sort of hub for self-driving cars and a little - like, a playground for innovation. So the mayor there was very supportive of this effort.

Here in California, this experiment has been going on for a little longer with Google. There are more regulations in place, and they didn't abide by them. It's not so much a free-for-all as it seems to be in Pittsburgh.

SIEGEL: That's reporter Queena Kim of member station KQED. Thanks for talking with us.

KIM: Well, thanks for having me on.

SIEGEL: And today Uber announced that it would be expanding its pilot project for self-driving cars in Arizona. In a statement, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey said, California may not want you, but we do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.