Uber and California DMV fight over definition of self-driving cars

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In highly regulated private industries, the law means what it says – right up until a regulator decides that it doesn’t. For that reason, Uber, a company with a reputation for aggressively challenging legal norms, must have been particularly frustrated when the California Department of Motor Vehicles decided to publicly rebuke it for complying with the law of the Golden State.

The crux of the issue is that Uber decided to move forward with deploying some of its vehicles with automated technologies onto California’s roads without a permit that, the California DMV believes, it must first obtain before rolling out.

In a statement, the DMV said it has a “permitting process in place” through which twenty manufacturers have obtained permits. Then, so as to leave no double about its position on the matter, stated that “Uber shall do the same.”

Now, whether the new Volvo XC90’s equipped with Uber’s technologies are “autonomous vehicles” as a matter of perception or regulatory projection is up for debate. Different people have different ideas about what fits that mold. But when it comes to whether the DMV should take action to slow Uber’s work, the question turns from one of perception to one of law and textual interpretation.

California, by way of the DMV, has chosen to define an autonomous vehicle in regulation as a vehicle equipped with technology “…that has the capability of operating or driving the vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person….” Thus, the factual question that confronted Uber before it made its decision to deploy the vehicles in California was simple: “is this vehicle capable of driving without being monitored or controlled by a driver?”

For all of their impressive capabilities, it is a matter of public record that Uber’s vehicles often require human intervention. By extension, those vehicles require constant monitoring by a human driver. On that basis, Uber likely thought that, while not toeing the industry line, its vehicles do not meet the definitional threshold necessary to trigger the state’s autonomous vehicle testing regulations.

Of course, what regulatory history there is pointing to a different intent, one that tracks with the DMV’s argument, is no doubt informative and interesting as a matter of historical record, but it should not overcome the obvious strictures of the regulation as written.

In the meantime, the DMV has sent Uber a cease and desist letter. While the merits of regulation are often a matter of debate, the even application of the plain language of the law should not be. Unfortunately, it appears that Uber, by dint of its reputation, is facing unwanted “special treatment” by its regulator. Worse, the DMV may be expanding the reach of its regulations after the fact. If that’s the case, and certainty is lost, so too will be the very definitional purpose of the DMV’s regulations – to make regular.


Image by Morenovel

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