Waymo early riders try out the Chrysler Pacifica; photo courtesy Waymo

License to Ride

Written by Jason Keil Category: Valley News Issue: November 2018
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Undeterred by the fatal incident involving a self-driving Uber SUV this year, Arizona doubles down on autonomous vehicles.

Just weeks before one of ride-sharing service Uber’s self-driving Volvo SUVs fatally struck a jaywalker on Mill Avenue in Tempe, Governor Doug Ducey signed into action an update to his 2015 autonomous vehicle executive order.

“As technology advances, our policies and priorities must adapt to remain competitive in today’s economy,” the governor said in a news release. “This executive order embraces new technologies by creating an environment that supports autonomous vehicle innovation and maintains a focus on public safety.”

Eight days after that tragic accident, Ducey sent Uber’s CEO a letter stating he was suspending future testing of its self-driving cars in Arizona until its technology improves. Uber, which temporarily suspended its self-driving testing nationwide, shuttered its Tempe operations in May. Requests for comment from the governor’s office were unanswered at press time.

But the tragedy hasn’t put the brakes on autonomous vehicle trials in the state. In September, Ducey was in attendance when TuSimple, a Chinese company that has been testing autonomous semi-trucks in Tucson, announced it was expanding operations in the area. The project will add 500 jobs over the next two years with a projected total economic impact of $1.1 billion over the next five years, according to the Arizona Daily Star.

Arizona’s relaxed autonomous vehicle regulations and favorable weather conditions aren’t the only reasons why the state is at the forefront of this still-evolving technology.

Waymo, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, brought a fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Chandler more than a year ago. They now boast an operation with a mix of backup drivers and completely driverless vehicles with 9 million miles driven on public roads. The company started as one of Google’s moonshot projects in 2009 and became Waymo when Google restructured under Alphabet in 2016.

Phoenix’s population growth and diverse transportation needs played a significant role in Waymo’s decision to set up shop in the East Valley, according to a Waymo spokesperson.

The company is looking for ways to fit into the area’s transportation infrastructure and investigate how people will use a driverless service. Participants in Waymo’s early rider program can use the driverless cars for free to get to work, school or a night out and contribute feedback on their experience. Waymo has also partnered with organizations such as the Foundation For Senior Living and Mothers Against Drunk Driving for the Let’s Talk Self-Driving campaign to show the public the benefits of autonomous vehicles.

This past summer, the company announced a partnership with Walmart. When an early rider program participant makes an order on the store’s website, one of Waymo’s vehicles will bring the customer to the location nearest them as their items are prepared for pickup. Avis and Auto-Nation are utilizing the minivan fleet to assist drivers with picking up or dropping off rental cars or getting customers around while their cars are being serviced. Valley Metro users can access the Waymo app to hail a car that will connect them with nearby public transportation.

Waymo’s progress toward a fully autonomous fleet does not mean the company hasn’t hit a few speed bumps along the way. In May, one of its vehicles was involved in an accident at a busy Chandler intersection. A sedan swerved into oncoming traffic and hit the self-driving car, which was in autonomous mode. The authorities determined Waymo was not at fault.

Uber’s suspension has not discouraged Waymo, according to the spokesperson, who is quick to point out that not all self-driving technology is created equal. Meanwhile, Uber will resume operations in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto and will continue to dialogue with Ducey’s office.

“We’re committed to self-driving technology, and we look forward to returning to public roads in the near future,” an Uber spokesperson says in an e-mailed statement.

HOW DO SELF-DRIVING CARS GET AROUND?
Ever wonder how autonomous vehicles work? Here is a peek under the hood of a Waymo Chrysler Pacifica minivan.

LIDAR
This is the sensor system, located on top of the car. It detects pedestrians and other objects in the road. It costs more than the vehicle itself.

VISION SYSTEM
These eight cameras and sensors are located around the car and detect small objects in any lighting condition.

RADAR
This system covers the blind spots and is effective for seeing objects in inclement weather.