PHOENIX — Spurned by California over safety concerns, Uber is moving the testing of its driverless cars to Arizona.
But Gov. Doug Ducey said Thursday that will not endanger Arizona motorists and pedestrians. In fact, he contends it actually could make the state's roads safer — eventually.
"There's all kinds of accidents and avoidable deaths due to human error,'' he said. "Uber hopes to solve much of that.''
The move comes after the California Department of Motor Vehicles told Uber it needs a permit to operate its self-driving cars in San Francisco. Anthony Levandowski who runs the company's driverless car program said those rules should not apply to Uber's test cars because they actually have someone behind the wheels.
By contrast, there are no laws in Arizona to prohibit manufacturers from testing driverless cars or even selling them to consumers. And nothing keeps anyone from buying one and taking it out on the road.
In fact, the head of the state Department of Transportation acknowledged there are no specific rules in place yet about how they have to be operated and how much actual control — if any — a human needs to have.
Ducey said ADOT has a task force which is working on all that. But he said that, even in the absence of any rules here, it's good for Arizona to allow such testing.
"Arizona's going to be a place that's open to this type of innovation,'' the governor said.
"We want to make sure our citizens are safe,'' he continued. "But we want to also allow those companies to test. And that's what they're doing here.''
Ducey got the opportunity to court Uber after negotiations between the company and California officials broke down. It ended with California revoking the registration of Uber's 16 self-driving cars because they were not properly licensed as test vehicles.
California officials did agree to let Uber seek the proper permits. But Levandowski refused to concede that the state was correct in its interpretation of the law.
He said California law expressly says that the requirements for special testing permits for self-driving cars do not apply to vehicles with collision-avoidance and similar technologies.
More to the point, Levandowski said California also exempts cars that cannot be driven "without the active control or monitoring of a human operator.'' And the Uber vehicles do have someone behind the wheel.
Ducey said that is an important point.
"Even in the driverless cars right now there are drivers inside the car,'' he said. "That's where they are in the testing.''
The governor said he got to ride briefly in two of these vehicles.
"It surprised me how smooth it was and how safe it felt,'' Ducey said.
"But there was somebody at the wheel,'' he explained. "And Arizonans can rest assured at this stage of the testing there's still a human being while the testing's going on.''
Nor was Ducey persuaded by the fact that California officials considered the technology not quite ready for prime time beyond the testing mode. Instead, he sees the issue from the perspective of economic development.
"We're agreeing to being business friendly and saying that innovation and entrepreneurship and the solving of problem happens in real-world situations,'' the governor said.
"I think these folks have taken a lot of precautions,'' he said. "We're going to work with them.''
Ducey acknowledged that the task force he formed more than a year ago has yet to complete its work and come up with rules of the road for self-driving cars. But he said that shouldn't stop what Uber and others are trying to do.
"We're not looking to chase these companies out of the state,'' Ducey said.
"We think it's going to provide jobs for Arizonans,'' he said. "And ultimately we think our streets are going to be much safer for our citizens and for our teenagers who are driving.''
At a hearing earlier this year, ADOT Director John Halikowski agreed with the governor that driverless technology can be safer.
He said virtually all of the nearly 35,000 fatal accidents in the country last year were found due to driver error. And he said there are other benefits, ranging from less need for downtown parking spaces to ensuring that the elderly and handicapped can get around for themselves.
But he conceded there are other questions yet to be answered.
One is whether someone needs a driver's license to operate an autonomous vehicle. Closely related to that is whether there has to be an adult in a car if a parent sends the kids off to school in a self-driving car.
There are technology questions, like the possibility of the software that operates the vehicle being hacked.
The Department of Public Safety has its own set of issues. Maj. William Beck said one is who is actually controlling the vehicle.
Put in simpler terms, if an autonomous vehicle is clocked at 67 miles per hour in a 55 mph zone, who gets the ticket: the person behind the wheel or the company that manufactured the software telling the vehicle to go that fast?
And Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee said there also are moral questions of how the computer that operates the car is programmed and whether, if a collision is unavoidable, does that programming protect the occupants at all costs even if others are put in danger.
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