The dispute is rooted in Uber's refusal to seek a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, which would allow it to test autonomous vehicles under certain conditions. Companies like Google, Tesla Motors and Mercedes-Benz have all gotten such permits.
Uber officials contend that under the letter of California law, the company does not need a permit because the motor vehicles department defines autonomous vehicles as those that drive "without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person." Uber said its modified, self-driving Volvo XC90s require human oversight, and therefore do not fit California's definition of an autonomous vehicle.
In an official statement provided via Uber's website, Anthony Levandowski, vice president of Uber's advanced technologies group, explains in detail why the requirement to obtain a permit doesn’t apply in Uber’s case.
“It’s hard to understand why the DMV would seek to require self-driving Ubers to get permits when it accepts that Tesla’s autopilot technology does not need them,” writes Levandowski. “We asked for clarification as to specifically what is different about our tech from the DMV, but have not received it.”
Of course, this isn't the first time Uber's decided to flout laws that it felt didn't apply.
In fact, I'd argue that Uber’s actually looking for these kind of fights.
Because the company is confident that current regulations aren't only outdated, they're harmful.
For example, take a brief look at Travis Kalanick's TED talk from earlier this year. Kalanick makes a convincing argument for the value Uber provides, and it goes beyond offering convenience to those who don’t own cars.
For example, according to Kalanick:
“If you own a car,” says Kalanick, “that means 96 percent of the time your car is sitting idle. And so, up to 30 percent of our land and our space is used storing these hunks of steel. We even have skyscrapers built for cars. That's the world we live in today.”
Uber was built on the premise of convenience (“to push a button and get a ride,” in Kalanick’s words). But Uber claims that as the company has evolved, it’s already taken millions of miles off the roads, removed thousands of metric tons of CO2 from the air, and reduced the need for millions to own a car.
Regulators argue that "innovators" must still play by the rules; otherwise, safety and order are compromised. But in flouting those rules, Uber just brings more attention to its cause--or, at least, more interest from customers and investors.
It seems to be working for now, with the ride-sharing company recently valued at over $60 billion.
But is Uber moving too fast for its own good? Will regulators succeed in popping Uber’s bubble, possibly paving the way for competitors?
Or will the momentum behind Uber’s tsunami of change prove unstoppable?