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Uber Had Special Autonomous Testing Deal With Arizona Governor

Long a strong supporter of Uber, Arizona governor Doug Ducey has now revoked its permission to operate its self-driving cars.

While Uber was under the control of founder Travis Kalanick, it operated more like an infiltrator than a business. It began testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco 2016 without notifying either city or state officials. After the state DMV denied the company a license to test autonomous vehicles within the state, Kalanick — who acts like a 2 year old with a full diaper much of the time — packed up all of the company’s self-driving cars and moved them to Arizona.

Image credit: Volvo

Why the Grand Canyon State? According to an investigation by The Guardian, it was because governor Doug Ducey had entered into a special agreement with the company in August of 2016 that would permit it to test its self-driving technology with little to no official oversight. Such a stealth mode, under the radar approach is precisely the kind of sub rosa arrangement Kalanick and his trusted lieutenants like best.

As the result of a public records request by The Guardian, the Arizona governor’s office released hundreds of emails going back to 2007. Ducey’s predecessor, Jan Brewer, was not welcoming to Uber, but things changed as soon as Ducey took office. Uber immediately began fawning over the new governor and promising to provide office space for government employees from Arizona at its San Francisco offices. Uber said it would bring money and jobs to Arizona, and in fact it created 300 jobs in the Phoenix area when it ramped up operations in that city.

As governor, Jan Brewer told authorities to enforce taxi licensing rules for Uber and its drivers, but a month after Ducey took office, he signed legislation exempting Uber (and Lyft) from those rules at a public ceremony. Prior to the signing, Uber staff members asked for the governor’s shirt size so they could supply him with clothing emblazoned with the Uber logo to wear at the signing ceremony. Ducey elected to wear a plain blue shirt instead.

Nevertheless, after the bill was signed, Uber executive Justin Kintz sent a laudatory email to Ducey’s chief of staff calling the governor “a real thought leader on these innovation issues.” Uber also said it would send out an “all-rider, all-driver email thanking the [governor] and the state of AZ for their leadership.” The extent of Uber’s campaign to win political support is shown by its hiring of David Plouffe, a former campaign manager for Barack Obama, as a senior vice president.

Part of the understanding between Ducey and Uber was that the state would create an advisory commission composed of “experts” who would advise state agencies on rule making for autonomous cars. According to the commission’s website, it has only met once. It has called no witnesses, demanded no documents, taken no actions, and issued no recommendations. 7 of the 8 members were appointed by the governor. The eighth member is a professor of systems engineering at the University of Arizona.

Is it a coincidence that Uber made a $25,000 donation to the University’s College of Optical Sciences or that it said that it would base a fleet of mapping cars at the university and collaborate with academics on laser-ranging lidar technology? Is it possible to buy the cooperation of a state bureaucracy so cheaply in America these days? The same day the donation was announced, Governor Ducey issued an executive order clearing the way for the public testing and operation of autonomous cars, provided a human safety driver was along who could take over controls in the event of an emergency.

The executive order also allowed driverless pilot programs to take place on university campuses within the state. As The Guardian points out, “Uber could not have asked for a better order if it had written it itself.” In fact, in now appears that Uber did suggest some of the language that got incorporated into the order.

Everything changed earlier this month when an Uber test car struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Now, Governor Ducey has reversed course and revoked Uber’s permission to test its autonomous cars in Arizona until further notice. Will Ducey’s about-face have an effect on the company’s ability to continue testing self-driving cars in other states as well? Uber says it has voluntarily paused its testing program pending the results of the investigation into the fatality. It may find it needs to break out the old corporate checkbook again if it wants to remain in the race to develop cars that can drive themselves.

Note: This article has been updated to clarify the agreement with Arizona was “special” but not “secret.”

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we heed his advice.


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