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University of Arizona, Uber Partner on Autonomous Car Research

Uber plans to test its driverless cars on Tuscon roads while donating to the University's College of Optical Sciences.

(TNS) -- The University of Arizona has formed a partnership with the ride-sharing company Uber Technologies to research new mapping and transportation innovations — including driverless cars.

Under the partnership announced Tuesday, the UA will become home to Uber’s mapping test vehicles and the company will donate $25,000 to the College of Optical Sciences for scholarships.

While driverless vehicles are not yet legal on public roads in Arizona and most states, Uber engineers will ply the local roadways, testing new technologies that will eventually enable driver-free vehicles.

“Don’t be surprised if you see an Uber engineer driving a not-so-average looking car around town — trust me, you’ll know it when you see it,” Brian McClendon, Uber vice president of advanced technologies, said at a news conference at the UA optics college announcing the arrangement.

Some of that work is already going on in Pittsburgh, where Uber opened an advanced-technologies center at Carnegie Mellon University in February as it kicked off its driverless-car project, McClendon said.

Gov. Doug Ducey noted that San Francisco-based Uber has made significant strides in Arizona, citing his signing earlier this year of a law allowing Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing companies to operate under new regulations.

Ducey also said that Uber opened a “center of excellence” in downtown Phoenix in January that is expected to eventually employ a couple hundred workers.

“Companies like Uber innovate 21st-century services to not only create new jobs, but literally improve the way we live and get around,” the governor said. “It’s in Arizona’s best interest to embrace new technology. This is about jobs and new research in optics right here at the U of A.”

As part of the partnership announcement, Ducey signed an executive order directing state agencies to take steps “to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona,” with certain conditions. The order also authorizes pilot programs with the state universities and sets up a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee within Ducey’s office.

So far, Arizona lawmakers have rejected legislation to make driverless or self-driving cars legal on the state’s roadways.

UA President Ann Weaver Hart said the Uber partnership is right in line with the UA’s mission and its standing as a top 20 U.S. public research university with one of the nation’s strongest programs in optics.

“We have led the way in applying optics to the solution of so many problems that we face as a society,” Hart said, citing the school’s work in telescopes and other advanced optics, sensors and imaging technologies.

The Uber pact is the kind of public-private partnership that will form an important part of the UA’s future, and similar initiatives are in the works across campus, Hart said.

She noted that Uber has agreed to help support undergraduate education with its scholarship donation as well as by committing to support student involvement in research under the UA’s “100 percent engagement” initiative.

“Uber is joining us as a partner in education, as well as in the basic research and its application for jobs in the new economy,” she said.

In trying to develop driverless cars, Uber is playing catch-up with tech giant Google, which has been testing such cars for a couple of years and hopes to roll them out by 2020.

McClendon — a former Google mapping executive whom Uber hired away in June — said Uber chose the UA because of its world-class reputation in optics.

The company initially will work with UA experts in lens design to improve imagery used for mapping, he said, adding that he was impressed during a tour of the UA’s optics labs.

“A lot of this is about lenses and the acquisition of imagery and in other cases technologies like LIDAR (a remote-measurement technology using a laser) that scanning the world around you in high resolution depends on,” McClendon said.

And that could even mean measuring the size of potholes — something that Tucson has no shortage of.

“It’s to get detail like street names, street address, or more importantly things like the depth of potholes, being able to read the exact geometry of the world around you and determining if it is part of your environment or a dynamic object that will be here today and gone tomorrow, and we need to know how to react to that,” he said.

McClendon said the company has made no long-term financial commitments to the UA, but he expects the company will support critical research projects as they are identified.

“We’re in this mapping technology for the long haul, so we’ll be working on this project for years,” he said.

McClendon said Uber has just a few employees in Tucson now, and that will increase as the program grows. He declined to elaborate on expected staffing levels.

©2015 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.