Ducey suspends Uber from testing, operating self-driving cars in Arizona
PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended the ride-sharing company Uber from testing and operating self-driving vehicles on public roadways in Arizona.
Ducey made the announcement in a letter to the company’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi on Monday.
The letter was issued in response to last week’s fatal car accident involving a self-driving Uber vehicle that resulted in the death of a woman.
An Uber employee was sitting in the driver’s seat but the car was operating in autonomous mode near Mill and Curry roads in Tempe.
Authorities said the car was heading north in the East Valley suburb when it hit 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who died at a hospital. The vehicle was traveling around 40 mph.
Video of the crash was released on Wednesday, which showed both the interior and exterior of the car as it drove along the dark roadway.
Herzberg was seen in the car’s headlights wheeling her red bike across the street. It then switched to the interior view which showed the employee, 44-year-old Rafael Vasquez, in the driver’s seat.
The video cut off just prior to the crash.
Ducey said in the letter to Khosrowshahi that the video was “disturbing and alarming” and raised “many questions about the ability of Uber to continue testing in Arizona.”
“As governor, my top priority is public safety,” part of the letter read.
“Improving public safety has always been the emphasis of Arizona’s approach to autonomous vehicle testing, and my expectation is that public safety is also the top priority for all who operate this technology in the state of Arizona.”
The company shut down self-driving vehicle testing in metro Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; San Francisco and Toronto shortly after the crash.
In a tweet, Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said the ban placed on Uber prevents the company from lifting its self-imposed suspension.
John S. Halikowski, the director of the Arizona Department of Transportation, issued a letter on Tuesday that confirmed that the suspension was “effective immediately.”
The move also came just days after a New York Times article detailed that the company’s own documents showed the testing program was rife with issues. They included trouble driving through construction zones and requiring far more human intervention than competing companies.
While the federal government has voluntary guidelines for companies that want to test autonomous vehicles, many states, including Michigan and Arizona, have taken a largely hands-off approach, hoping to gain jobs from the new technology.
Ducey used light regulations to entice Uber to the state after the company had a shaky rollout of test cars in San Francisco. Arizona has no reporting requirements.
In an exclusive interview with the San Francisco Chronicle published before the video’s release, Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said the crash may have been unavoidable.
“It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway,” the chief told the outlet.
The chief said it appeared that Uber may not be at fault in the accident, though other charges could result.
“I won’t rule out the potential to file charges against the (backup driver) in the Uber vehicle,” she said, adding that it would be “new ground” should the robotic car found to be at fault.
But two experts who viewed the video told The Associated Press that the SUV’s laser and radar sensors should have spotted Herzberg and her bicycle in time to brake.
“The victim did not come out of nowhere. She’s moving on a dark road, but it’s an open road, so Lidar (laser) and radar should have detected and classified her” as a human, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who studies autonomous vehicles.
Smith said the video may not show the complete picture, but “this is strongly suggestive of multiple failures of Uber and its system, its automated system, and its safety driver.”
Sam Abuelsmaid, an analyst for Navigant Research who also follows autonomous vehicles, said laser and radar systems can see in the dark much better than humans or cameras and that Herzberg was well within the range.
“It absolutely should have been able to pick her up,” he said. “From what I see in the video it sure looks like the car is at fault, not the pedestrian.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.