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Image: CNET

On Wednesday, a week after Uber launched its driverless fleet in San Francisco, the ride-sharing giant was forced to pull its cars off the road.

News that Uber would unveil 16 driverless Volvo SUVs—its second driverless fleet available to the public, after Pittsburgh—was met with swift action by state regulators. Less than 24 hours after the announcement, the California DMV called the move “illegal,” and threatened to sue. Although Uber continued to run the fleet after the message from regulators, a stronger threat that it would lose registrations forced the company to halt its experiment.

In a statement, Uber said it is “looking at where we can redeploy these cars but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The California project was not the only place the public could try out a driverless vehicle—in August, Singapore’s driverless taxis were the first to be unveiled in a public capacity. And Uber’s Pittsburgh fleet entered the roads in September.

The difference in this case? California law requires a permit for these vehicles—20 companies currently possess it—which Uber declined to apply for. Uber’s argument was that, since its vehicles were operated by human drivers, it did not need to comply with the rule. Another possible advantage of not holding a permit is that Uber would not be forced to report accidents.

The move immediately elicited concerns from autonomous driving experts. Bryant Walker Smith, associate professor at the University of South Carolina and an expert in the legal implications of autonomous driving, wondered how the move fit into Uber’s “long game.”

Particularly, he said, the move seemed to be at odds with the company’s broader mission to build trust in the systems and developers of autonomous vehicles.

SEE: Our autonomous future: How driverless cars will be the first robots we learn to trust (TechRepublic)

But Uber’s decision wasn’t entirely unexpected. The company has “a history of pushing the boundaries, not wanting to wait for permission because it slows down innovation,” Michael Ramsey, an autonomous vehicle expert at Gartner, told TechRepublic.

“This was the likely outcome. Perhaps Uber wanted to make a statement, and it made it,” said Ramsey. “There will be plenty of cities that will be happy to have them test out their cars.”

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