Uber's experiment with self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco has come to a complete stop.
The ride ended last Wednesday after just one week, when the California Department of Motor Vehicles revoked the registrations of the ride-hailing company's 16 Volvo XC90s. Uber said it will test its cars in another state.
The dispute between the DMV and Uber centered on the definition of "autonomous." The company said its cars have the same kind of driver-assist technology that Tesla calls "autopilot" in cars on the road today. But the DMV said Uber's vehicles more closely resembled the test cars of 20 other companies including Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz and Google.
California requires companies testing autonomous vehicles to obtain a special permit and carry an extra $5 million of insurance in addition to the usual type of policy. There are restrictions on who can be a test driver, and companies have to file reports not only of accidents but also of "disengagement" incidents whenever the human driver has to take over the wheel.
Uber previously tested its self-driving Volvos in Pittsburgh, where reports were not required.
The DMV ordered Uber to apply for a permit or get its cars off the road, but the company had no interest in getting a permit. It's not clear why. The privately held $69 billion startup, which discloses little information to the public, may have been concerned that reporting requirements would lead to lawsuits in California, recently named the nation's second-worst "judicial hellhole" by the American Tort Reform Association.
"A lengthy book could be written every year about the inexorable expansion of civil liability in the once Golden State," the 2016 report states.
Or it could be that Uber was taking an aggressive stance in an attempt to force the rewriting of state regulations. On Wednesday night, the company said it "will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules."
But if Uber is right that its technology is similar to Tesla's in that it is not fully autonomous, could there be another reason the two companies have been treated differently by state officials?
Perhaps it's because Tesla sells climate-friendly electric cars to wealthy people. Uber, on the other hand, disrupted the taxi business and could be reducing ridership on public transit. UberPool, which puts passengers who are traveling in the same direction together in one vehicle, is already available in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Maybe that's why Uber didn't seem to have a lot of friends in California government rushing in to help it navigate the regulatory waters when the DMV disputed the company's definition of autonomous.
But it does have friends. President-elect Trump just named Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to his new Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of top business executives who have been asked to provide "direct input to the president," according to a statement from the transition team.
Wall Street analysts say Uber is likely to lose $3 billion this year, mostly due to the cost of paying drivers. Uber's push to get self-driving cars on the road could be central to the company's plans for future profitability.
It's just not going to happen in California any time soon.
REPRINTED FROM THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER