Emails Show Uber, Arizona Government Kept Self-Driving Program Under Wraps

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s staff worked with ridesharing company Uber to launch the company’s experimental autonomous vehicle program without informing the public, emails obtained by the Guardian revealed.

The conversations between Ashwini Chhabra, the head of policy development at Uber, and Ducey’s deputy chief of staff Danny Seiden show that the state willingly accommodated Uber’s self-driving cars — a considerable departure from the government’s harsh words for the company following a fatal accident involving one of the vehicles.

Uber Emails reveal Uber and Arizona governor Doug Ducey hid autonomous vehicle program from public. Photo: Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to the emails published by the Guardian, Chhabra contacted Seiden on Aug. 19, 2016, to alert him that Uber would begin “testing some self-driving functionality” starting that weekend.

“There will be safety drivers at the wheel, so won’t look much different from what’s already been on the road but wanted to flag it for you nonetheless,” Chhabra promised.

While launching the program, Chhabra also asked the governor’s deputy chief of staff for a contact at the Phoenix police department in order to give the officers “a heads up” about the self-driving cars that would be on the road.

A brief mention of the autonomous vehicle tests was made at the time in an Arizona Capitol Times that states, “self-driving cars are already being tested on Arizona roads,” but it made no mention of Uber. The governor made no formal announcement regarding the tests at the time.

In December 2016, Uber had the registrations for 16 of its autonomous cars revoked by the state of California for testing the vehicles on the streets of San Francisco without obtaining the required permits. Uber immediately sent those vehicles to Arizona, where Ducey welcomed them.

“Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads,” Ducey said at the time. “While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses.”

The announcement made no mention of Uber’s ongoing autonomous vehicle tests which had already been operating in the state for more than four months.

Earlier this week, Ducey directed the Arizona Department of Transportation to suspend Uber’s self-driving car program in the state. The suspension came in response to a fatal accident in which one of the autonomous vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian. The governor called footage of the crash “disturbing and alarming” and said the accident was an “unquestionable failure to comply” with his state’s standards for public safety.

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