Loss of life puts the brakes on driverless pursuit

Vehicles like this self-driving Uber car have begun to raise local transportation questions. (photo by Uber)

What are the ethical guidelines when it comes to implementing beta technology into everyday systems? For motorists, it seems that a formal announcement of self-driving car advancement went by the wayside.

The future of self-driving cars probably won’t include gas peddles, steering wheels or drivers, but transportation, safety and government officials agree the robotic cars are treated no different than an archaic standard motor vehicle.

Hundreds of self-driving vehicles in the greater Phoenix area, which are no longer required to have a driver behind the emergency steering-wheel, have little regulations behind their operations, Arizona Department of Transportation, Scottsdale Police Department and municipal officials say.

Fully autonomous vehicles — driverless, self-driving or robotic cars — are expected to emerge in the automobile marketplace within the next 20 to 30 years, diminishing the nearly 100-year-old tradition of personal automobiles, transportation experts say.

Gov. Doug Ducey has plowed the path for companies like Uber and Waymo to build their testing grounds in Arizona by signing two executive orders prioritizing the technology in the past three years.

In his most recent order, Gov. Ducey outlined that the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and all other agencies of the state of Arizona shall take the necessary steps to support the testing and operation of fully autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane vocalized similar support in his most recent State of the City address in January, in which he touched on the barrier that politics and government can be on innovation.

Mayor Jim Lane

“The autonomous vehicles that General Motors began testing here two years ago were soon joined by similar vehicles being tested by Uber,” Mayor Lane said at that time. “Those vehicles continue to travel our streets, testing and evaluating the latest technology. This is an area where government and business clearly share interests.”

Mayor Lane says breaking down the barrier for this kind of innovation was exactly what he wanted to do in his first term.

“And now Scottsdale, with the help of some great leadership from Governor Ducey, is doing our part to aid the evolution of this technology by facilitating conversations, supporting innovation and sometimes simply stepping out of the way,” he said.

Stepping out of the way is exactly what government officials appear to have done, as local regulations on the robotic cars are meager.

Scottsdale Police Department officials say they do not have any autonomous vehicle specific policies, and the cars are handled as any other vehicle. City officials stated in a prepared statement that they don’t have a specific policy for the vehicles either.

Ryan Harding, a public information officer for the Arizona Department of Transportation, says in most cases there are no special registration requirements to operate in Arizona.

“We treat self-driving vehicles the same as any other vehicle on the road. They must be registered, licensed and insured and they must obey all Arizona traffic laws,” he said.

“Autonomous vehicle companies that intend to operate fully autonomous vehicles without a person in the driver seat must submit a form to ADOT certifying that the driverless vehicles are in compliance with all state and federal laws, able to obey all traffic laws and are able to achieve a reasonably safe state, such as bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, upon should the vehicle’s automated driving system fail.”

Waymo tests its vehicles in the east Valley. (photo by Waymo)

The local level

Arizona is lauded by automobile and technology companies as a prime testing ground for its weather and topography, among other things.

The infiltration of Uber’s self-driving cars within the city of Scottsdale is said to have quietly begun in February 2017. Within months, several of their cars were seen on Scottsdale’s thoroughfares.

Intel and GM reportedly also operate within the Valley, in addition to Uber and Waymo.

This graphy shows the locations Waymo is testing their vehicles. (graphic by Waymo)

In September 2017, the Independent reported that Scottsdale officials and attorneys were nervous about the self-driving cars, but ultimately found that they couldn’t keep them out.

“The initial companies told us they’d be using our streets and asked us not to share that information out of the fear that Chris just mentioned,” Transportation Director Paul Basha said at that time.

“We did have multiple meetings with a variety of disciplines, including our attorney’s office. Our attorneys were very nervous but said we couldn’t keep them out. So driverless cars were being operated for approximately two years before anyone was aware of it.”

Waymo, formerly the Google self-driving car project, started their autonomous testing in 2009, and became Waymo in 2016.

In August 2015, Gov. Doug Ducey signed the country’s first executive order supporting the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles in Arizona. This year he signed a second executive order for autonomous vehicles on March 1, set out to advance vehicle testing and operating, and prioritizing public safety.

Gov. Ducey welcomed the companies with open arms all while keeping it quiet from the public, according to a March 2018 article by the Guardian that shed light on the email exchanges between Uber officials and the governor’s office.

“The previously unseen emails between Uber and the office of governor Doug Ducey reveal how Uber began quietly testing self-driving cars in Phoenix in August 2016 without informing the public,” the article states.

Through a series of communication, the Guardian’s article illustrates a case of strange bedfellows, with Gov. Ducey sending specific Tweets related to Uber’s operations, an provided office space, questionable ethical choices and one simple email to the governor’s office that announced “starting this weekend” Uber would “start testing some self-driving functionality.”

The obtained emails came amidst the first reported United States fatal pedestrian death caused by an autonomous vehicle, when a woman was struck by one of Uber’s cars and died in Tempe.

Gov. Ducey suspended Uber’s right to operate eight days after the accident. At the time, Ducey told Uber’s chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi that video footage of the crash raised concerns about the company’s ability to safely test its technology in Arizona, news outlets reported.

The accident has reportedly halted federal legislation, according to Scottsdale resident Christopher West and co-founder of Jackson-West Consulting.

Mr. West first presented to the Scottsdale Transportation Commission in fall 2017, outlining and explaining various aspects of autonomous vehicles.

Months later, the forecast he had presented isn’t so clear.

“That Tempe accident has put the brakes on most of the legislation that’s been moving forward. We’re seeing that in a whole bunch of other states,” he said.

Chris West

“In Arizona, Waymo is now re-looking at some testing they’re doing. Everyone is taking a step back — at the federal level, things have come to a screeching halt.”

Mr. West points to a letter dated March 14, by five United States Senators: Dianne Feinstein, Kirsten Gillibrand, Edward J. Markey, Richard Blumenthal and Tom Udall.

The letter written to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Chairman John Thune and Senator Gary Peters asks to resolve outstanding concerns prior to working on a newly introduced senate bill to ensure it will deliver on its promise to advance safety.

Known as S. 1885, AV START, the new bill seeks to support the development of highly automated vehicle safety technologies.

“We are concerned that the bill indefinitely preempts state and local safety regulations even if federal safety standards are never developed,” the letter states.

“Until new safety standards are put in place, the interim framework must provide the same level of safety as current standards. Self-driving cars should be no more likely to crash than cars currently do, and should provide no less protection or occupants or pedestrians in the event of a crash.”

The letter goes on to say that the bill must take responsibility for many new risks that greater deployment of self-driving cars will introduce, such as cybersecurity safeguards and consumer privacy protection.

“Lastly, while the bill supports future deployment of self-driving cars at higher levels of automation, we are concerned that it does not address known problems with current deployment at lower levels of automation,” it states.

“While there is no substitute for strong safety standards, we believe the bill should at least require vehicles with partial automation to also be subject to safety evaluation reports. This would help assure safety and ensure that these systems’ limitations and reliability are well-documented.”

In addition, a bill titled the Self Drive Act, H.R. 3388, is working its way through the legislation process that could increase the amount of beta-tested self-driving vehicles from the current amount of 2,500 to hundreds of thousands in the next couple of years.

It passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 6, and is now at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

A view of the entrance into the Scottsdale City Hall Kiva Auditorium where members of city council discuss the local matters of the day. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

Little excitement in Scottsdale

According to police and transportation officials, autonomous vehicles on Scottsdale roads haven’t created too much of a conversation within municipal hallways.

Mr. Basha, the city’s transportation director, says he hasn’t hosted any other conversations regarding autonomous vehicles since their presentation by Mr. West last fall, nor have city council officials approached him to discuss the topic.

The fatal Uber accident that occurred in March wasn’t far from Scottsdale boundaries, but there hasn’t been any direct concern at City Hall.

“It didn’t cause any direct concern because we have not formally granted anyone permission to use or test autonomous vehicles on Scottsdale streets,” Mr. Basha said. “Nor do they need city or government permission to test their vehicles on city streets.”

Mr. Basha notes that the autonomous vehicle’s technology was to predict pedestrian behavior better than a human driver could.

“That was not the case in that circumstance,” he said. “I will say, technology is always advancing and there’s always flaws and frequently serious flaws with new technology. Those flaws need to be corrected, technology needs to be refined, and that will happen with autonomous vehicles.”

While the accident was unfortunate, Mr. Basha says, this will be a learning experience for autonomous vehicle manufactures.

“The technology will simply get better and better as time passes and they devote attention to the technology,” he said.

Scottsdale Police Department Public Information Officer Kevin Watts says in February 2017 members of their department attended an autonomous vehicle demonstration at the Uber facility in Tempe.

“At this point we have not had any incidents in our city involving an autonomous vehicle establishing a cause for concern,” he said.

Mr. Watts contends that there are not any fully autonomous driverless vehicles operating on Scottsdale roads.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.