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Uber courted Arizona governor while scaling back sensors, reports say

Separate reports find that Governor Doug Ducey may have had an inappropriately close relationship with the ride-hailing giant, allowing testing on Arizona roads without public knowledge.

As the self-driving car industry continues to search for an answer that explains the death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona, more information has come to light on the questionable relationship between the ride-hailing service Uber and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey.

The Guardian was able to obtain a series of emails between the governor's office and Uber representatives that outline not only a close working relationship, but an overly permissive attitude toward business development without adequate regard to public safety and without alerting the public of the potential dangers of autonomous vehicle testing.

Uber has offered no comment on the ongoing situation in Arizona.

Emails discovered by The Guardian illustrate Arizona Governor Doug Ducey's questionably close relationship with Uber.

Laura Segall/Getty Images

According to the Guardian, one of the most egregious acts by Governor Ducey was to allow Uber's fleet of self-driving vehicles to start testing on Arizona roads without making the public expressly aware. This was after Uber's cars had been disallowed from testing in San Francisco as a result of their running multiple red lights.

"Allegations that any company has "secretly" tested self-driving cars in Arizona is 100% false," said Patrick Ptak, senior press secretary and spokesman for Governor Ducey's office. "From the beginning, Arizona has been very public about the testing and operation of self-driving cars -- it has been anything but a secret."

This approach by Uber seems to indicate behavior adopted in an attempt to catch up with more established self-driving efforts by the likes of Waymo and General Motors. Reuters points out that when Uber made the switch from Ford Fusions to its current fleet of Volvo XC90 SUVs, it dramatically reduced the number of sensors, resulting in substantial blind spots around the vehicle.

Ashwini Chhabra is shown in emails to have worked with Governor Ducey's office and Phoenix PD to keep Uber's self-driving car tests off the public's radar.

Brian Ach/TechCrunch via Flickr

The single, roof-mounted lidar on Uber's XC90 has a blind spot of more than 9 feet surrounding the vehicle. The previous Ford Fusion test cars had six smaller lidar units mounted in the front, the rear and on the fenders in addition to the roof-mounted unit.

We've reached out to Velodyne for comment on the Uber self-driving car's blind spots.

While Arizona certainly isn't the only highly permissive state for self-driving car testing -- both Pennsylvania and Florida are equally lax on legislation -- its clear weather and decent roads are ideal for testing early-stage autonomous vehicles. While the full ramifications of this incident continue to evolve, this cessation of testing will likely slow development by companies other than Uber as well.

Update 3/28, 3:26 PM:  Updated with comment from the Arizona governor's office.