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California threatens Uber in self-driving cars permit row

Uber is on a collision course with California regulators after vowing that its self-driving cars will continue ferrying passengers around San Francisco.

State prosecutors have responded by threatening to haul the ride-hailing firm before a judge if the service is not suspended immediately.

In a sharply-worded letter, lawyers with the California's Department of Justice demanded that Uber obtain a special state permit if it wanted to continue. If not, "the attorney general will seek injunctive and other appropriate relief".

Though there was no deadline in the letter, Melissa Figueroa, a spokeswoman for California transport regulators, said the state would take action "early next week" if Uber did not comply.

Uber began the pilot project on Wednesday with a few Volvo SUVs fitted with a sensors allowing them to steer, brake and accelerate. A person sits behind the wheel, just in case.

Uber chiefs and the state have talked several times this week after California's Department of Motor Vehicles issued a similar legal threat.

Anthony Levandowski, who leads the company's self-driving programme described the talks as "frank conversations" which left him unswayed .

State lawyers insist Uber's cars are "autonomous vehicles", which need the permit to ply their trade on public roads.

But Mr Levandowski says he respectfully disagrees, arguing Uber does not require the permit that 20 other companies testing the technology in California have obtained because the Volvos have back-up drivers behind the wheel monitoring the cars.

That means the Volvos are not "autonomous vehicles" under the state's definition, he contends.

Mr Levandowski likened the Volvos' abilities to those of Tesla cars that have the Autopilot feature which allows them to steer without a person touching the wheel and to brake and accelerate without a person touching the pedals.

He questioned why the thousands of Teslas on California roads did not need a permit if Uber's cars did.

San Francisco's mayor has sided with the state and a consumer advocacy group suggested California should do more than force Uber to stop.

"We believe their activity is a criminal offence under the motor vehicle code, punishable with up to six months in jail," John Simpson of the Consumer Watchdog group said.

"(Uber) CEO Travis Kalanick should be arrested immediately."

But in a sign of the level of interest in the technology, the mayor of Beverly Hills voiced his support on Friday for Uber testing without a state permit.

AP

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