Arizona getting ahead of autonomous vehicle industry by stepping aside

Ryan Randazzo
The Republic |
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A Waymo self-driving car drives down Arizona Avenue in Chandler.

With major testing by Waymo, Uber, General Motors, Ford and Intel, Arizona is more than holding its own in the race to attract the self-driving car industry.

Though 22 states have either passed legislation or executive orders addressing the industry,  Arizona has several things working in its favor.

The East Valley is the only location where preselected customers can call for a free ride in a Waymo minivan.

Metro Phoenix is one of three places people can hail a ride in a self-driving Volvo from Uber, the others being Pittsburgh and San Francisco. The vehicles mostly operate near Arizona State University and up Scottsdale Road, though they often are spotted in Phoenix as well.

And Scottsdale is the only place outside San Francisco or the Detroit area you might catch a glimpse of a Chevy Bolt named after a cartoon animal puttering through town.

MORE:What we know about self-driving cars in Arizona

The companies don't disclose the exact numbers of their vehicles on the road, but there are enough that their bulky rooftop sensors are now a common sight.

On some crosstown drives, Arizonans might spot vehicles from all three companies and others. All of them use drivers ready to take over when needed.

In addition, Intel tests its own self-driving technology using cars such as BMWs, Ford Fusions and Land Rovers in Chandler.

Ford also is testing self-driving technology at its Wittmann proving grounds where about 15 employees, including some from Michigan and California, work.

A few accidents involving Waymo and Uber have occurred in Arizona, with minor injuries only, and law enforcement agencies did not fault the self-driving vehicles.

Good weather, good roads

Two Intel employees test out a self-driving car in the southeast Valley.

Arizona isn't the most active state for testing. That would be California, with about 30 companies. But Arizona can claim a substantial amount of activity for a state without auto manufacturing, where many of the other tests are taking place throughout the country.

“Arizona is in a nice spot because of the combination of weather, generally good roads and appropriate density,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina who has taken up autonomous vehicles as a specialty.

“If I were trying to figure out where a company might try to deploy, I would take a map of where Uber operates and overlay it with a map of where the weather is really nice. Then I would look at where the roads are relatively simple. Phoenix is in a pretty sweet spot there.”

A 2015 executive order from Gov. Doug Ducey didn’t hurt, either, he said. The order aimed to make suggestions if needed, but not over-regulate the fledgling industry. Ducey directed a committee to advise the Department of Transportation, law enforcement and universities on how they can advance the deployment of the vehicles on state roads.

“The state believes that the development of self-driving vehicle technology will promote economic growth, bring new jobs, provide research opportunities for the state’s academic institutions and their students and faculty, and allow the state to host the emergence of new technologies,” Ducey’s order said.

Arizona also has attracted the industry without major investments in infrastructure such as those other states are considering. The exception is a pilot program in Anthem testing how roadways can communicate with vehicles to smooth traffic.

States take hands-off approach

Eighteen states have passed regulations specific to autonomous vehicles, and four, including Arizona, have executive orders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the laws that have passed, like Arizona’s order, are aimed at advancing the industry.

Arizona’s oversight group has met just twice in the last year, and found no reason to suggest any new rules or restrictions on autonomous vehicles, so long as they follow traffic laws. The group found no need to suggest legislation to help the deployment.

“At this point, you just need to be a registered, insured vehicle just like anybody else,” said Kevin Biesty, deputy director for policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation and one of the governor’s appointees to the committee. “For decades, manufacturers have tested new technology on the roadways. This really is no different.”

A licensed driver must be responsible for the vehicles, and the governor’s order allows universities to test vehicles with no driver on board so long as a licensed driver has responsibility for the cars and can take control remotely if the vehicle needs assistance. No companies have described such remote tests taking place yet in Arizona.

Arizona has avoided the industry infighting that has occurred in other states, such as disputes in Tennessee and Illinois over whether tech companies can offer rides in the vehicles or if they should be restricted to automakers.

The governor touted this hands-off regulatory environment as the reason Uber brought its test fleet to Arizona in December following a registration dispute in California.

Uber has increased its fleet size here since then, and the company reports it has about 100 vehicles operating in metro Phoenix, Pittsburgh and San Francisco.

Waymo, the self-driving car project by Google, is signing up customers in the East Valley near its Chandler hub who can receive free rides in its vehicles.

Waymo has more than 150 self-driving vehicles on roads in Arizona, Washington, Texas and California, and is adding about 500 minivans to the fleet. Hundreds of Arizonans are expected to participate in its free-ride tests.


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