Uber and Lyft, watch out: SFO airport wants to use license-plate scanners to keep self-driving cars off its roads

San Francisco International’s airport director starts his letter to the California Department of Motor Vehicles by saying his airport is “excited” about the potential for autonomous vehicles to make the state’s highways and streets safer.

Just not in his backyard, without permission.

The DMV on April 28 published a number of letters it received after asking for comments on proposed robot-vehicle regulations.

Among those letters was an April 24 missive from SFO airport director Ivar Satero.

Satero noted that SFO was the first California airport to embrace ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft.

Both those companies plan to bring autonomy into their ride-sharing fleets. Uber has been testing autonomous vehicles, and Lyft, in its own letter to the DMV, said it believed its platform would provide the first chance for many Californians to ride in robot cars.

But if those firms have plans to provide services at SFO, they’re headed toward a legal wall topped with a high-tech surveillance apparatus.

“Because airport roadways are not ‘public roads,’ owners and operators of AVs (autonomous vehicles) are prohibited from operating at any public airport in California under the proposed regulations as currently drafted,” SFO’s Satero said in his letter.

“For purposes of enforcing AV regulations prohibiting AVs from operating on airport roadways, we request the DMV to post all AV license plate numbers and states of issuance on the AV page of its website.

“This will allow SFO to periodically compare the posted license plate numbers against license plates captured by SFO’s automated license plate recognition technology.”

Satero also noted in his letter that the general public may not know airport roads aren’t public, and he requested that the final rules make clear that such roadways are private.

However, the letter was not an announcement that all autonomous vehicles will be banned from SFO, an airport spokesman said.

“We’re not opposed to testing these vehicles on our roadways,” said spokesman Doug Yakel. “What we want to do is drive … a dialog with the operators to coordinate when testing is happening.”

The airport has only 1 1/2 miles of road, and “the type of traffic patterns that you have at an airport are very unique and different from anything you’d find on a highway (or) in a residential area — it’s kind of like AP Calculus for autonomous vehicles.

“It’s really something we want to coordinate.”

Yakel said he wasn’t aware of any such dialog so far with companies working on self-driving cars. But the license-plate scanning and comparison with a list of robot vehicle license plate numbers would be intended to prevent unauthorized self-driving vehicles from using the airport’s roads, Yakel said.

Uber and Lyft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Note: This post has been updated to include comments from SFO.


Photo:  Uber driver Karim Amrani sits in his car parked near the San Francisco International Airport parking area in 2015. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)


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