Gov. Doug Ducey insisted Friday that public safety will not be compromised by his decision to allow Uber to test its self-driving vehicles on Arizona roads even before the state has adopted rules for their use.
The governor personally welcomed the first of Uber’s self-driving test vehicles, 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 that shows Arizona is friendlier for businesses than its neighbor to the west.
But Ducey 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. And the governor noted that both the state Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety are involved with a task force with companies like Uber to come up with the rules and regulations for autonomous vehicles.
“We’ll be putting those out there with consumer safety and public safety being the No. 1 priority,” he said.
Nor was the governor dissuaded by the fact that the task force has not yet come up with any rules.
“There’s more to be determined here,” Ducey said.
“I mean, this is technology that is changing right before our eyes,” he continued. “The message today is Arizona’s open for business. We’re welcoming this technology. We’re not pushing it out of our state.”
That is what Uber claimed happened to it in California when transportation officials there said the cars had to be registered as test vehicles. An Uber spokeswoman at Friday’s event in Phoenix declined to immediately answer questions on what that entailed in regulations and why that was unacceptable.
Instead the company opted to ship its 16 test vehicles to Arizona.
Ducey said he sees no reason for any special registration or even to wait until the task force comes up with its rules.
“These are vehicles that are actually going to have human beings sitting in the driver’s seat, just like any other car,” he said. “So, the liability, the insurance, the permitting is the same.”
The governor said only when the technology develops for fully autonomous vehicles, what he called “the 2.0 stage of it,” that the rules of the road need to be in place before they can be deployed in Arizona.
That’s also the position of Kevin Biesty, ADOT’s deputy director for policy. He said the stage of development now for the Uber vehicles does not and should not need special permission or special rules for testing them in Arizona neighborhoods.
He pointed out, for example, that General Motors is now offering an “advanced cruise control” on many of its vehicles. It has the ability to change the car’s speed by itself to avoid collisions.
Biesty said GM, which tests vehicles in Arizona, tried it out on the road with people behind the wheel. And he said there was no special approval.
“This is no different,” he said.
Biesty acknowledged that the task force is still wrestling with questions ranging from whether those behind the wheel of truly autonomous vehicles need to be licensed to who is legally liable if a computer-driven vehicle speeds or causes damage.
There also are moral questions about how a computer should be programmed to react if an accident is inevitable and it has to decide between protecting the vehicle’s occupants and harming those in other vehicles or on the sidewalk.
“These are the conversations we’re having,” he said. “Do I get to put my 2-year-old in an autonomous vehicle and send them to grandma’s house?”
Biesty said many of these questions are likely to go beyond what the task force can decide, with the ultimate answers coming from the courts as well as state legislators.
But he said the lack of answers to these questions should not preclude the kind of testing that Uber and other companies want to do on Arizona roads.
“We’re not to deployment yet,” he said.
So how quickly does that happen?
“This is something that many in the press will say is decades away,” Ducey said. “I think it’s sooner than that. I think it’s much more developed.”
The real issue, he said, will be public acceptance.
“The safety of it has to be proven out,” Ducey said. But he said the public also needs to be sold on how it can help the environment with fewer vehicles on the road, less idling, a reduced need for parking lots and the opportunity for more open green spaces.