Uber deploys a fleet of self-driving Volvo XC90s, and starts a legal battle

Ridesharing giant Uber has teamed up with Volvo to test self-driving XC90s in real-world conditions on the steep, busy streets of San Francisco. And now the project has kicked off a legal battle, one from which Uber is not backing down.

Earlier this week, Uber announced that a fleet of SUVs would be part of a pilot program designed to help both Uber and Volvo gather data about self-driving cars. A spokesman for the Swedish brand told Digital Trends that the project has already begun. He couldn’t confirm how many XC90s will be dispatched in San Francisco, but he revealed the project will be significantly larger than the one Uber operates in Pittsburgh. Only customers who request an UberX will have the chance to ride in a driverless car, and they can ask for a human driver if they don’t feel comfortable participating in the pilot program.

The XC90s participating in the pilot program were assembled alongside the regular model built for customers and shipped to Uber’s workshop, where they were fitted with the company’s self-driving software. Visually, they stand out thanks to lidar equipment and an array of cameras on the roof. They’re fully stock otherwise, and more discreet than the Ford Fusions undergoing testing in Pennsylvania.

Uber explains that testing cars in San Francisco will allow it to learn how its technology reacts to varied weather, narrow lanes, and a relatively high traffic density. However, it’s taking a cautious approach to deploying autonomous cars on public roads. A technician will come along for the ride at all times to take notes on how the car handles different situations, and to take over in the event of an emergency.

When Uber launched the program, it said that it didn’t believe it needed a permit to test the technology in San Francisco because a technician would always monitor the car. State and city officials, however, were quick to disagree.

Just hours after announcing the self-driving tests, California DMV counsel Brian Soublet wrote a letter to Uber’s automation efforts lead Anthony Levandowski, asserting that the state agency would pursue legal action and seek out an injunction if Uber continued to test without a permit. Mayor Ed Lee also demanded that Uber “stop the unpermitted and unlawful testing of autonomous vehicles.”

But on Friday, Uber made clear that it had no intentions whatsoever of slowing down, much less stopping. “We respectfully disagree with the California DMV’s legal interpretation of today’s automation regulations,” Levandowski said in a conference call Friday afternoon. Noting that Tesla’s semiautonomous “Autopilot” function doesn’t require a permit, the automation expert insisted that Uber should be no different.

Needless to say, officials are none too pleased by this argument. “Uber is failing to be a respectful civic partner to the city of San Francisco by choosing to put Uber’s self-interest before the safety of the residents of their hometown,” Ellen Canale, a spokesperson for the mayor’s office, said in a statement. “The Mayor is working with the DMV, state officials, and the city attorney’s office to explore all possible avenues available to us to enforce state law.”

Alas, it looks as though Uber’s optimism earlier this week in expecting a warm reception for its self-driving tests was misplaced. “Several cities and states have recognized that complex rules and requirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation,” the company said in an earlier press release. “Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world’s dynamism, will take a similar view.”

Article originally published on 12-14-2016. Updated on 12-17-2016 by Lulu Chang: Added news of legal battle that has ensued over Uber’s permit-less testing.

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