Phoenix emerging as Mich. rival for self-driving tests
Chandler, Arizona — Limited regulations, mild winters and predictable street grids are turning the Phoenix area into the latest hotspot for testing self-driving cars.
On a Tuesday in early June, Intel Corp. was testing Ford Fusion Hybrids on the roads of suburban Chandler. General Motors Co. and its Cruise Automation subsidiary were putting a self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EV through its paces in downtown Scottsdale. A self-driving Volvo XC90 owned by Uber was seen in Scottsdale the same day, and an Uber spokeswoman said it was mapping communities to expand its real-world laboratory.
The Phoenix area has attracted the autonomous-driving programs of Intel, GM, Uber, Ford Motor Co. and Waymo. Over the past year, Phoenix has joined Metro Detroit, San Francisco and Pittsburgh to become a major center for testing robotic automotive technologies.
The Phoenix climate lets companies make sure their self-driving software and hardware systems work in extreme heat and glaring sun. There’s even the occasional dust storm. Ford tests its Fusion Hybrids there in winter, when ice and snow covers Michigan roads. The hope of the companies is to rack up miles in order to sharpen navigation and crash-avoidance systems, and one day put driverless cars on the road.
Waymo, the self-driving spinoff of Google, hopes to have hundreds of real people in the Phoenix area ride along in self-driving Lexus RX450h crossovers and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans this year. The early-rider program allows selected residents to grab free rides daily to work and school. A test driver will remain behind the wheel in case anything goes wrong.
“We’ve found local residents and officials have been enthusiastic about this technology,” a Waymo spokeswoman said. “Phoenix is a fast-growing region that relies heavily on vehicles, so this gives us the opportunity to learn from people who would be willing to use self-driving cars for everyday travel in a variety of transportation situations.”
Waymo, which also tests in other states, said earlier this year it would grow its fleet of self-driving Pacificas from 100 to 600. Last week it said car rental company Avis Budget Group would maintain and service the Phoenix fleet.
Chip-maker Intel Corp. has 15 self-driving vehicles and an autonomous vehicles lab in suburban Chandler, where the company employs thousands. The company has eight self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrids on Chandler’s streets. Data from sensors, cameras, lidar and radar helps Intel fine-tune the computing brains of the robocars. It’s also researching human interaction and riders’ experiences with the cars.
“The more data they get, the more they can hone in the algorithms to train the vehicles to be more confident on what they’re recognizing and how to react,” Marcie Miller of Intel’s Automated Driving Marketing group said.
Absence of regulation
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in August 2015 signed an executive order on self-driving vehicle testing and pilot programs to help encourage development of the technology in the state, which it believes will help save lives.
Automakers and companies don’t need special permits or licenses to test in the state. Autonomous vehicles have the same registration requirements as other cars and trucks. Unlike California, Arizona doesn’t require companies to report each time that a car’s autonomous mode is overridden by a test driver.
“It is the lack of regulations that really makes Arizona attractive,” Mike Ramsey, research director for technology advisory firm Gartner Inc. said in an email. “In the U.S., if it isn’t illegal, it’s legal. Arizona hasn’t passed laws on the subject – that actually makes it easier to operate there.”
Eighteen states, including Michigan, have passed laws to address autonomous vehicles; governors in four other states have issued executive orders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Michigan’s broad law, signed in December by Gov. Rick Snyder, will allow the public to buy and use fully self-driving cars when they are available and will allow ride-sharing services without drivers to be operated by auto manufacturers or by ride-hailing services such as Lyft or Uber.
Doug Parks, GM’s vice president for autonomous technology and vehicle execution, told reporters in June that Arizona is welcoming to the testing and it offers GM another location for testing that differs from the complex urban streets of San Francisco and the winter testing offered in southeast Michigan.
“(The) Phoenix area is a different kind of environment,” he said. “The roads are bigger, more residential, wider streets. It’s just a different layout.”
Popular driving sites
GM is running more than 50 autonomous Bolts in Scottsdale, San Francisco and southeast Michigan. It recently built 130 next-generation autonomous Bolt EVs that will be added to the test fleet.
The automaker has not said how many Bolts are on the road in each location, but recent employment ads for Cruise Automation recruited autonomous vehicle trainers for different work-shifts in the Scottsdale market. The work pays $20 an hour, plus benefits.
Ford, which has a proving grounds outside Phoenix, has tested self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrids on tracks and public roads in Michigan, California and Arizona.
“Specifically to Phoenix, we’ve used the area during the winter months in Michigan, as we can continue testing due to the more temperate weather conditions,” Ford spokesman Alan Hall wrote in an email.
Ford is working with Argo AI, the artificial intelligence company in which Ford is investing $1 billion to develop a virtual-driver system. Hall said the companies will work together to determine future testing, including locations.
Uber is testing more than 150 self-driving Ubers in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and the Phoenix suburb of Tempe. The company would not disclose how many are being tested where. Uber has worked with the University of Arizona to develop mapping technology.
The ride-hailing company has been picking up passengers in Tempe for the past four months, an Uber spokeswoman said. Tempe riders who requested an uberX — the least expensive Uber option that seats up to four — are matched with a self-driving Volvo if one is available.
“We are picking up riders in the Phoenix area daily,” an Uber spokeswoman said in an email. “The state of Arizona has had a relationship with Uber for some time and has led the way when it comes to embracing ride-sharing and innovation. Governor Ducey has made the sharing economy one of his top priorities during his time in office and with that foundation in mind, Arizona is an ideal place for Uber to introduce self-driving cars.”