Uber: the biggest challenge for our self-driving cars is finding cities to test them in

Pilot models of the Uber self-driving car is displayed at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center on September 13, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Angelo Merendino | AFP | Getty Images

Uber's Emil Michael says autonomous driving technology is being perfected at a faster rate than we think, but the challenge the company faces is finding enough test markets to get the cars ready for prime time.

Because driverless cars are brand new, governments haven't put rules in place to determine their legality. So Uber doesn't always know who's going to be welcoming until after it puts cars on the road.

"In most states and cities, there are no rules about driverless cars," Michael, a senior vice president at Uber, said on Wednesday at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco. "Relationships with cities are hard sometimes, so you have to invest in a lot of them."

For example, Uber has had success setting up its autonomous driving experiment in Pittsburgh, where the company set up an Advanced Technologies Group in partnership with Carnegie Mellon.

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However, in Uber's hometown of San Francisco, the company had to pull autonomous cars from the road in December. San Francisco has regulations surrounding autonomous driving such as the need for constant monitoring that Uber said don't apply to its cars, so the company refused to apply for a permit.

Uber instead moved that fleet of cars to Phoenix, Arizona.

"The governor welcomes us there and wants to be part of innovation trends," Michael said.

Uber needs to find more friendly cities so its computers-on-wheels can get smart enough for eventual nationwide and worldwide deployment.

"We need real road miles to make the thing work," Michael said.