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Uber Won't Seek Calif. Permit Renewal To Test Self-Driving Vehicles After Fatal Crash

Updated at 9:10 a.m. ET Wednesday

The future of Uber's self-driving car program is likely non-existent in California, at least for now.

The company announced it will not renew Uber's permit through the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to continue testing a fleet of autonomous-driving cars on California roads, following last week's deadly crash in Tempe, Ariz.

"We decided to not reapply for a California DMV permit with the understanding that our self-driving vehicles would not operate on public roads in the immediate future, " a spokesperson toldThe Verge.

Uber voluntarily suspended all of its self-driving programs in cities around the country. The current permit from the California DMV is set to expire on March 31st, according to the Associated Press.

The DMV will soon begin evaluating permit applications for companies interested in launching self-piloted car tests, although the likelihood of approval appears to be slim.

"The DMV is allowed to begin issuing driverless testing and/or deployment permits on April 2, but that doesn't mean a manufacturer will meet the requirements or if we will approve them," a DMV spokes told The Verge.

Also on Tuesday, chipmaker Nvidia Corp. announced it too will temporarily suspend self-driving tests, spokesman Hector Marinez told NPR.

The company supplies the chips for Uber's autonomous cars and has five test cars of its own operating in California and New Jersey.

"Although we developed our self-driving technology independently, as good engineering practice, we will wait to learn from Uber's incident. The entire industry will learn from this incident," Marinez said.

The change in Uber's strategy follows a decision hours earlier by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey to suspend testing in that state, where the fatal accident happened.

The crash, which occurred late at night in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe, killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she was walking her bicycle across a dimly lit city street.

In a letter sent Monday to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Ducey called the incident an "unquestionable failure" to meet public safety expectations.

The local police chief initiallycalled the incident "unavoidable," but sentiment quickly changed after the release of video of the crash. The video, which depicts both internal and external views of the Uber vehicle, shows the car's safety driver looking down, away from the road, as a pedestrian suddenly emerges into the headlights.

The governor cited the video on Monday in both his letter and tweets about the crash.

"I found the video to be disturbing and alarming, and it raises many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona," Ducey wrote in the letter.

He acknowledged ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but said Arizona "must take action now."

It is unclear how exactly the Uber suspension will be enforced. Unlike California, Arizona does not have a permitting system for autonomous vehicles. An executive order signed by Ducey earlier this month requires only that testers submit a statement to state regulators attesting to their vehicles' safety. The order did note, however, that "nothing in this order establishes a right to operate an autonomous vehicle in Arizona."

According to a state Department of Transportation spokesperson, the suspension applies only to Uber. Arizona will continue to allow other companies to test autonomous vehicles.

Nonetheless, the announcement is a swift reversal for a state once called the "Wild West" of self-driving cars. In 2016, Ducey welcomed Uber with "open arms and wide open roads" as the company sought alternatives to California's regulatory environment.

For its part, Uber says it will continue to cooperate with investigators. A spokesperson for the company told NPR that federal investigators have the vehicle, along with data from its onboard cameras and sensors. The spokesperson stressed Uber's "proactive" steps in suspending testing after the crash, not only in Arizona but in all other test cities — Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto.

But the accident comes as yet another controversy for a company trying to position itself for a public stock offering. The past year has seen Uber struggle through a leadership crisis, a massive data breach, a sexual harassment scandal, and a high-profile trial ending in substantial concessions to its competitor, Google subsidiary Waymo.

The Uber spokesperson says the company is unable to comment on details of the crash. Last week, Uber's CEO tweeted "we're thinking of the victim's family."

In a separate incident, the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation Tuesday into the fatal crash of a Tesla car equipped with a self-driving system. The vehicle struck a highway barrier, caught fire, and was later hit by another in Northern California.

The Mercury News reported the driver died in a hospital Friday, the day of the crash.

It is unclear if the autonomous driving system, called Autopilot, was controlling the vehicle.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 28, 2018 at 12:00 AM EDT
The headline on this post has been updated. While it is unlikely that California officials would approve a new permit for Uber to test self-driving cars in the state, as the headline stated, it is more accurate to say that Uber will not seek renewal of its permit.
Ian Wren