The state's biggest cheerleader for self-driving cars, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, has been offered a chance to tour the roads of metro Phoenix in a vehicle that has no one in the front seats.
Waymo, following inquiries from the Phoenix New Times this week, said that Ducey was "always welcome" to take a such test ride.
So far, the governor's office isn't ready to plan the event.
It would be easy to forgive Arizona Governor Doug Ducey if he were apprehensive.
After all, he invited Uber to Arizona in 2016 with the specific promise of little to no oversight, and on March 18 an Uber Volvo XC-90 plowed into a pedestrian without even slowing down, killing her. Ducey banned Uber's self-driving cars from Arizona roads after the crash.
But there's a good reason Ducey soon should be become one of the first Arizonans to take a fully driverless vehicle out for a few miles, and maybe even on the freeway.
Since the Uber crash, Ducey has allowed Waymo and several other high-tech companies to continue their experiments.
Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, says it will begin a robo-taxi service this year for the general public. The company has been testing no-backup-driver cars in metro Phoenix since November on a limited basis. When able to operate without a backup driver for extended periods, autonomous vehicles achieve what's known as "Level 4" automation.
So far, only pre-selected customers in Arizona have been allowed in Waymo's fully driverless vehicles, and those vehicles sometimes included backup drivers. The company says its futuristic taxi service utilizing fully driverless Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, with no backup drivers, will be able to cover a 100-square-mile area.
“Members of the public will be able to take our cars anywhere in our service area,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said at the New York International Auto Show in late March. “We will be driving everywhere — dense, urban centers, high-speed roads, low-speed roads, suburbs. There’s every driving scenario to be imagined.”
But up until now, it wasn't clear that Waymo had ever offered Ducey a test ride on any-speed roads in one of these high-tech marvels.
New Times asked the company repeatedly earlier in the week when it would be ready to offer Ducey a test ride in a car with no one at the wheel. The company refused to answer.
Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey's spokesman, said he wasn't aware of any such offers.
He and Ducey's chief of staff, Kirk Adams, told New Times in January that the governor would be willing to ride in a no-backup-driver car — even on the freeway.
On Thursday Scarpinato confirmed that "we'd still be willing to do it."
Later that day, Waymo, when told the governor's office said Ducey was game, the company said through a spokesperson, "Governor Ducey is always welcome."
New Times asked Scarpinato what day the governor's office would like to set it up.
"Appreciate your strong interest in this," Scarpinato emailed. "And while I appreciate the offer, I don't need your help planning media events :-)
"As you know," he went on, "the governor is a strong proponent of Arizona being open to new innovation. We've done many events to highlight the benefits of these innovations for the state and its citizens. I have no doubt there will be many more. Stay tuned."
Ducey has ridden twice in semi-autonomous vehicles with backup drivers, the first time in December 2016 with Waymo, the second time three months later with Uber. Both events drew a plethora of media attention.
Members of the Arizona news media haven't yet been offered a chance ride in a fully driverless vehicle, although in October, Waymo took select California journalists on such a ride around the company's 60-acre property.
The governor is well-known for his bold, no-regulations policy on autonomous vehicles. But at this point, that's partly because of the high-profile Uber crash. It came a little more than a year after he urged Uber to come to Arizona specifically because of the state's lack of oversight.
Tempe police and two federal agencies continue to probe what went wrong in the crash. Tempe police Sergeant Ronald Elcock said on Thursday that his department had not yet submitted the case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for review.
In preparation for the robo-taxi service, Waymo in February became one of 13 companies in Arizona to receive a permit to operate a Transportation Network Company, which is offered to ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft. But the permit didn't address the self-driving aspect of Waymo's cars.
Previously, Waymo and seven other self-driving technology companies, (Uber, GM/Cruise, Ford, Tu Simple, Embark, Intel, and Peloton), had been told they could operate under Arizona transportation laws, without any special requirements, as long as a backup driver was behind the wheel.
But on March 1, a few months after Waymo announced it would begin testing fully driverless vehicles on the state's roads, Ducey released an executive order that required the companies to take minimum registration and safety steps if they intended to remove their backup drivers.
Waymo is one of only two companies so far that have filed letters with the state that are now required by the March 1 order for the testing of fully driverless vehicles. The other is Nuro, a California company that plans to soon test robotic vehicles in Arizona that have no seats at all for humans.
So, they are ready for the governor. Is he ready for them?
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