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Hutchinson's Saturday trip to Israel has 4-day agenda, unknown costs

Governor to lead his 2nd trip there aimed at economic development by Michael R. Wickline | November 5, 2021 at 6:57 a.m.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson answers a question during the weekly covid-19 update on Tuesday, June 29, 2021, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston will be joined by three other state employees during the governor's second economic development trip to Israel over the past 4½ years, a spokesman for the state Department of Commerce said this week.

The state officials are scheduled to depart Little Rock on Saturday.

Asked about state government's expected cost for the trip, Department of Commerce spokeswoman Alisha Curtis said Wednesday, "We don't have the total cost at this point and won't until after the trip concludes, but the trip will be paid for from a combination of state and Economic Development Foundation funds." The Arkansas Economic Development Foundation is a privately financed nonprofit.

The state's contingent to Israel will depart Little Rock on Saturday, arrive in Tel Aviv on Sunday, attend diplomatic meetings in Jerusalem on Sunday and Monday, attend the Smart Mobility Summit in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, attend diplomatic and business meetings and depart on Wednesday, and return to Little Rock on Thursday, Curtis said.

Hutchinson and Preston will be joined by the governor's senior commerce adviser, John Eddy; Director of Communications Shealyn Sowers; and security detail member Jeremy Page, she said. Page is an Arkansas State Police trooper.

The governor's first economic development trip to Israel occurred in June 2017 after he first stopped in France and Germany.

It's the Republican governor's 12th economic development trip overseas as governor and the first since he went to Japan and China in November 2019, according to information provided by Curtis.

Hutchinson announced his trip to Israel on Tuesday afternoon at his weekly news conference at the state Capitol. Curtis responded on Wednesday to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's questions submitted to her and Sowers on Tuesday afternoon.

Hutchinson noted that this trip will be his first international economic development trip since the covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, and the focus of the trip will be speaking at the prime minister's International Smart Mobility conference focusing on technology and solutions for the future of transportation.

"The fact that I have been invited to speak reflects Arkansas' leadership in advanced mobility and smart mobility," the governor said.

Sowers said Wednesday the state of Israel invited the governor to the conference, which Hutchinson described as a "great marketing opportunity for the state of Arkansas" because about 5,000 people from 40 countries are expected to attend the conference.

For 10 years, the Smart Mobility Initiative of the Israeli prime minister's office has nurtured a thriving ecosystem for the development of advanced mobility technologies and solutions, according to the initiative's website.

Asked how Arkansas is a leader in advanced mobility and smart mobility, Sowers said in a written statement, "There was legislation passed in 2019 that allowed companies to test autonomous vehicles in Arkansas, this coupled with cutting edge logistics companies, Wal-Mart, Tyson, ArcBest, JB Hunt, & Transplace, makes our state a leader in mobility.

"There will be additional news next week on the pilot program," she said.

"In addition to this topic the conference will focus on electric vehicle development and the conference gives Arkansas an opportunity to showcase our manufacturing capabilities," Sowers said.

Act 468 of 2019 implemented an autonomous vehicle pilot program that limited the number of vehicles that could be operated to three and required a safety driver to be present in each vehicle. Walmart and Gatik, a self-driving vehicle company, were the only participants in the pilot program, said state Department of Transportation spokesman David Parker.

In July 2019, Walmart announced it expanded its testing of autonomous delivery vehicles to Bentonville, home of its global headquarters, to deliver packages on a section of Southeast Walton Boulevard between a Walmart Neighborhood Market and a Walmart grocery pickup point and delivery center.

Act 619 of 2021 removed the pilot program designation, thus eliminating the restriction on the number of vehicles a company can operate after a certain amount of time, and eliminated the safety driver requirement, Parker said. New rules based on the 2021 law are in the process of being promulgated by the department, he said.

By late Thursday afternoon, Walmart didn't immediately respond to this newspaper's question about the company's future plans for self-driving vehicles in Arkansas and elsewhere.

Ford Motor Co. and its autonomous-driving affiliate, Argo AI, have teamed with Walmart to begin testing the home delivery of groceries and other items by self-driving cars in three cities later this year, The New York Times reported in September. The service will start in Miami, Washington and Austin, Texas, and will be limited to specific areas but is intended to expand over time, Argo said in a statement. The service will start operating with a half-dozen vehicles equipped with Argo's technology, although two trained test drivers will be in the car for safety.

At his news conference Tuesday, Hutchinson said he also will be focused on the aero defense industry during his trip to Israel and "we have a good partnership with Israel, and aero defense is one of our leading exports in terms of manufacturing."

Asked about that partnership, Sowers said Wednesday the aerospace and defense industry in Camden is a supplier via Lockheed Martin, Aerojet, Rocketdyne, and Raytheon to Israel, and the missile systems produced there help in Israel's defense system known as the Iron Dome.

Aircraft and spacecraft are Arkansas' No. 1 worldwide export with a value of more than $1 billion in 2020 and have been No. 1 for nearly the past 18 years and are Arkansas' fourth-largest export to Israel, she said.

Print Headline: State officials departing for Israel

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