Originally Published: March 27, 2018 6:04 a.m.
PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey late Monday suspended the ability of Uber to continue testing its autonomous vehicles on Arizona roads.
In a letter to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, the governor said he viewed the video released by Tempe police this past Wednesday of the March 18 accident that killed a pedestrian.
“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. One angle showed both the person behind the driver’s seat looking down, possibly at a phone; the other through the windshield showed the car hitting the woman.
But gubernatorial press aide Daniel Scarpinato said it wasn’t just the pedestrian death that caused his boss, who had specifically urged companies to test the vehicles in Arizona, to have second thoughts. He said there needs to be a review of Uber’s overall testing and technology.
Ducey’s action comes a day after the New York Times reported that Uber’s effort to put autonomous vehicles on the road was having problems even before the accident in Tempe.
Documents reviewed by the newspaper said that Uber was struggling to meet its target of having vehicles go at least 13 miles before a human driver needed to intervene. At the same time, the Times reported, the company was having tests done by solo drivers rather than its previous practice of having two people in each test vehicle.
Monday’s action is a sharp reversal of his open-door policy of actively urging Uber and other companies to test their driverless technology on Arizona roads.
It was Ducey who shortly after taking office in 2015 declared Arizona to be a haven for testing autonomous vehicles, free of the kind of restrictions and oversight that other states were imposing.
In 2016, the governor personally welcomed the first of Uber’s self-driving test vehicle which were hauled to Arizona after Uber rejected the demand of California transportation officials that they be specially licensed and registered as test vehicles. Ducey said at the time that shows Arizona is friendlier for business than its neighbor to the west.
“The message today is Arizona’s open for business,’’ the governor said. “We’re welcoming this technology. We’re not pushing it out of our state.’’
And Ducey specifically insisted that public safety would not be compromised by his decision to allow Uber to test its self-driving vehicles on Arizona roads even before the state had adopted rules for their use.
But Ducey, in the 2016 event, sidestepped a question of whether he should be held personally responsible if someone is injured or killed in Arizona as a result of problems with one of these vehicles.
“These cars are going to be insured,’’ he responded.
On Monday, however, Ducey displayed a different attitude.
“As governor, my top priority is public safety,’’ he wrote to the Uber CEO, saying that improving public safety “has always been the emphasis of Arizona’s approach to autonomous vehicle testing.’’
“My expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state,’’ Ducey continued. “The incident that took place on March 18 is an unquestionable failure to comply with this expectation.’’
That video released by Tempe police shows what happened in the seconds before the vehicle, operating in autonomous mode, struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg who was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk. All indications are that the vehicle did not brake before hitting her, suggesting that it did not “see’’ her.
Uber on its own had already suspended all of its self-driving testing in Arizona and elsewhere.
“We continue to help investigators in any way we can,’’ the company said in a press statement. “We’ll keep a dialog open with the governor’s office to address any concerns they have.’’
In allowing Uber and other firms to test the vehicles in Arizona, Ducey specifically sought to exempt them from some of the same kind of reporting that was being required in California and elsewhere. That includes that “intervention’’ report, how often drivers need to take control when the technology does not perform as expected.
According to the New York Times, Uber had driven three million miles in autonomous mode as of this month. It also said that the 13-miles-per-intervention statistic by Uber compares with the 5,600-miles-per-intervention reported in California by Waymo, the self-driving care company owned by Alphabet.
Arizona does not require such reports to be filed with the state for testing here.
Scarpinato said it isn’t just Tempe police that is looking into what happened earlier this month. He said Ducey wants to see the result of federal investigations into the same incident.
“We think these investigations related to Uber need to play out so we can get the facts,’’ Scarpinato said.
He also said the governor does not believe he needs to suspend testing being done by other firms.