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A Friendly Regulatory Landscape Often Paves the Way for AVs

States like Arizona and Texas have positioned themselves as hubs for autonomous vehicle testing and deployments, in part, by creating regulatory landscapes that are easy for new companies to navigate.

An autonomous delivery robot seen from the side with both its doors open.
Nuro, which makes self-driving delivery vehicles, has formed partnerships with retailers, as well as states and local governments to allow the devices to operate on roadways.
The regulatory landscape can play an outsized role in determining where autonomous vehicle projects land.

As the nascent industry seeks to grow and expand its reach and technology, it has encountered a regulatory environment ranging from the cautiously optimistic and welcoming, to more guarded and watchful.

Nuro, a company making self-driving delivery vehicles partnering with major retailers like CVS and Kroger, launched its service in Houston, in part because of the low level of regulatory hurdles in Texas.

“Among other things, there is explicit authorization for AV operation, and the path to commercial deployment that not all states have,” said Katie Stevens, head of state and local policy at Nuro, which is based in Mountain View, Calif.

Speaking at the recent Transportation Research Board Automated Road Transportation Symposium, Darran Anderson, who heads up strategy and innovation at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), added that Texas legislation “pretty much opened up the door to any type deployment. So it really runs the gamut, from personal delivery all the way to long-haul freight, and then passenger deployments and autonomous drones as well.”

In Houston, Nuro serves an area covering four ZIP codes. Its self-driving bots are designed for roadways — as opposed to bike lanes or sidewalks — and have partnered with retailers as well as delivery services like FedEx to serve delivery needs. That the growth of vehicle automation has occurred alongside the growth of e-commerce and on-demand delivery is perhaps a happy coincidence, since the two are poised to pair as urban regions seek to not only serve the growing delivery impulses of residents, but also contend with traffic, worker shortages and other complications.

Autonomous delivery has been tested in other locations like a project in Fairfax, Va., and Ann Arbor, Mich. Meanwhile, other states like Missouri have taken steps to consider enabling legislation to allow for sidewalk delivery bots.

Given the newness of the technology and the patchwork of state regulations in the autonomous vehicle arena, companies say they tend to eye locations with the path of least resistance to commercialization.

Waymo, a self-driving car project started by Google in 2009, wants to ensure “the regulatory environment that we’re operating in is both beneficial for companies that are looking to begin testing and deployment in states, but also manages the public policy considerations at the state and local level,” said Aidan Ali-Sullivan, who manages state policy and government affairs in the western U.S. for Waymo, in comments at the symposium.

The company has been testing and operating in Arizona, a state known for extending the welcome mat for autonomous technology.

“What works for Arizona today is trying to utilize our current regulatory structure to promote and advance this technology in conjunction with local, federal and state partners,” said Kevin Biesty, deputy director for policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation, which views AVs not much differently than human-operated autos when it comes to regulation.

“The promise that this technology holds is, rather than having millions and millions of different operating systems out on your roads, eventually you will be down to a handful,” said Biesty, referring to the many human drivers out there as operating systems. “And when there’s an issue with that operating system, we can go in and make changes to it. We can’t do that today.”

Back in Texas, Stevens noted the state’s friendly regulatory environment was not the only reason Nuro launched a service in Houston, noting that the mostly flat landscape and sprawling urban region woven together with some 6,200 miles of roadways and a diverse customer base helped to make the case for autonomous delivery. However, the fact remains that one of the key factors Nuro looks at when considering where to test and locate its service is, “is the state open to AV deployments?” said Stevens.

“We operate in Arizona, like most other AV companies, for a number of reasons, but Texas… is extraordinarily receptive — both at the state and local level — and happy to work through regulatory issues,” she added. “It’s a good mix of state and local support, among other characteristics.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.