Relationship with Arizona governor questioned as improper

In its efforts to court Arizona governor Doug Ducey, Uber built a relationship with Ducey that was unusually close. The Guardian obtained emails showing that the relationship including joint press conferences, Uber service on the governor’s policy committees, Uber providing meeting space to the governor when he visited San Francisco, and even the governor potentially wearing an Uber shirt.

Ducey enacted policies favorable to Uber. In Phoenix, city staff reported “pressure placed on us by the governor” to enact policies that Uber requested. In one episode, Uber asked that the governor promote Uber Eats via a Tweet, which he did the next day. Ducey’s Uber dealings were particularly close on the subject of self-driving cars. After California revoked DMV registration of Uber vehicles that had not obtained the permits California said were needed, Uber sought to bring those vehicles to adjacent Arizona, which the governor permitted. Moreover, prior to Uber’s announcement of its self-driving vehicles on the road in Arizona, Ducey had allowed the vehicles to operate unannounced.

The public benefit of Ducey’s pro-Uber policies was not always apparent. The governor touted collaboration between Uber and Arizona’s College of Optical Sciences, but that school’s dean commented that “Our dialog with Uber has not led to any significant ongoing research engagement.” The governor allowed Uber to test self-driving vehicles on Arizona roads, only to backtrack when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. The governor touted economic benefits expected to result from Uber’s activities in Arizona, but while Uber brought self-driving cars to the state, its engineering teams largely remained elsewhere.

Self-driving vehicle struck and killed pedestrian

An Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.

Early reported indicated that the pedestrian was crossing a roadway after dark, outside a crosswalk, and that Uber would probably be deemed not at fault in this incident.

But reviewing crash video, multiple concerns arose. For one, Uber’s onboard staff person — supposed to take over in case of system problems — was looking down or sideways, hence unable to see the pedestrian. If her hands were on the steering wheel, ready to take over driving from the computer, that is not apparent from the video. Two, the pedestrian was making steady across the roadway. Three, some experts said a standard automatic emergency braking system, even on ordinary commercial vehicles, would have been able to detect the pedestrian and at least apply the brakes.

Velodyne, which makes the LIDAR sensors used on Uber’s autonomous cars, expressed surprise that the Uber vehicle hit the pedestrian. A Velodyne spokesperson explained in an email: “We are as baffled as anyone else. … Certainly, our Lidar is capable of clearly imaging Elaine and her bicycle in this situation.” Velodyne suggested that Uber’s software might be at fault, explaining that “[o]ur Lidar doesn’t make the decision to put on the brakes or get out of her way” and that Uber’s systems would have to make those decisions.