The San Francisco program will mimic the Pittsburgh pilot. Riders whorequest an UberX, one of the company's budget ride options, may be matched with a self-driving Uber.
While 20 other companies exploring self-driving cars, including Alphabet's Google, Tesla Motors and Ford Motor, have obtained a DMV permit, Uber has not. Uber's self-driving cars have been seen around San Francisco since at least September.
In its letter to Uber, the DMV's chief counsel said it "will initial legalaction" if "Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit."
California defines autonomous vehicles as cars that have the "capability" to drive "without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person." Uber argues that definition does not apply to its cars, which are equipped with a driver and an engineer in the front seats to take over in situations such as a construction zone, pedestrian crossing or taking a left turn across a lane of traffic.
"All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws," a spokeswoman said.
In a company blog post, Uber called on California to take a more "pro-technology" approach to regulating autonomous cars.
"Several cities and states have recognized that complex rules andrequirements could have the unintended consequence of slowing innovation," Uber said. "Our hope is that California, our home state and a leader in much of the world's dynamism, will take a similar view."
On Wednesday, local media aired a video of a self-driving Uber running a red light, which was captured by a bystander. Uber said the incident was because of human error - suggesting that the car was not in autonomous mode - and was not carrying passengers, and the driver had been suspended.