Capitol Alert

Uber’s head of self-driving cars helped develop law DMV says the company flouted

Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's self-driving car program, speaks about their autonomous vehicle in San Francisco on Dec. 13, 2016.
Anthony Levandowski, head of Uber's self-driving car program, speaks about their autonomous vehicle in San Francisco on Dec. 13, 2016. The Associated Press

A fight with the Department of Motor Vehicles over whether it falls under California rules for testing self-driving cars has forced Uber’s pilot program off the state’s roads.

It was Uber’s head of autonomous vehicles who made the initial push for that regulation in 2012, when he held a similar role at Google.

Anthony Levandowski, who has defended Uber’s decision not to seek permits for its test vehicles as an “issue of principle,” was a leader on Google’s self-driving car project when the company decided to clear up the legal gray area around the emerging field by asking to be regulated before someone else came along with a less-favorable proposal.

A conversation between Levandowski and a lobbyist at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas led Google to quickly secure permission in Nevada, according to The Associated Press. The company followed up in its home state of California the following year with a bill carried by then-Sen. Alex Padilla.

At the news conference announcing Senate Bill 1298, Levandowski and Padilla arrived together in one of Google’s driverless Priuses. Levandowski also helped lobby lawmakers to pass the legislation, which ultimately gave the DMV authority to develop specific regulations for testing and public use of autonomous vehicles.

“California has always led the way with innovation, and SB 1298 will continue our tradition of being first in world-changing technologies,” Levandowski wrote in a letter before the bill’s first committee vote.

The testing regulations took effect in September 2014 for “technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or continuous monitoring by a human operator,” a directive lifted from the language of SB 1298.

That has become the sticking point in Uber’s showdown with the DMV.

Before the DMV revoked registration for 16 of Uber’s test vehicles last week, compelling Uber to halt its pilot, the company argued that it did not need permits because “our cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them.”

The DMV disagrees. It also noted that the 20 other manufacturers currently testing self-driving cars in California are still required to have someone behind the wheel to take over in case something goes wrong.

Uber’s critics have accused the company of simply trying to avoid the requirement that it publicly disclose any time one of those incidents occurs.

Uber’s pilot program is headed now to Arizona.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff