The NCSL Blog


By Anne Teigen

In the latest development in the brave new world of government regulation of self-driving cars, California and Uber are at legal loggerheads about the ride-sharing company's use of a small number of self-driving cars (with a backup driver behind the wheel) to pick up passengers in the Bay Area.

Uber driver waits for ride in San Francisco. Credit: Associated PressLast week, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued a stern letter stating that Uber has acted illegally by operating the self-driving cars and “must cease” until the company gets a permit. 

To legally test autonomous vehicles in California, a company must prove it has $5 million in insurance, and that all test drivers are trained. The companies must also submit detailed reports on the vehicles being tested including when a driver needs to take control of a vehicle or if the vehicle was involved in an accident.

Uber argues the vehicles being driven in San Francisco do not need a permit because the vehicles are not “technically” autonomous vehicles. Although the cars steer, brake, and can change lanes, the  “cars are not yet ready to drive without a person monitoring them” and are therefore not autonomous.

In its letter, the California DMV insists Uber stop using the vehicles until they have proper permitting or the state will take legal action. Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and expert on self-driving cars, says the DMV could seek a court injunction, forcing Uber to stop testing, and it could also revoke the cars' vehicle registrations and issue tickets to the car’s drivers for reckless driving.

California is not the only state that has had to address this issue. Nevada state law mandates that companies submit a permit application, a $5 million bond and proof that their self-driving vehicles have completed 10,000 miles of testing before vehicles can be allowed on public roads in the state. During tests, vehicles must be supervised by people sitting in the driver's and passenger's seats. Approved vehicles are given a red license plate to show they are autonomous.

In May of this year, Otto—a self-driving technology company that focuses on trucks and is owned byUber—unveiled a video of an 18-wheeler driving down Interstate 80 in Nevada with no driver at the wheel. The company conducted this test despite a warning from Nevada’s DMV that it would be violating state law. 

Anne Teigen is a program principal in NCSL's Transportation and Criminal Justice programs.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.