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Arizona Tech Towns Open to AV Testing on City Streets

Both Tempe and Chandler, Ariz., have become test beds for self-driving car technology.

The combination of few regulatory hurdles and a welcoming tech community have made at least two Arizona cities go-to communities for autonomous vehicle testing.

Both Tempe and Chandler have established mostly informal agreements with AV technology testers to operate self-driving cars on city streets in real-world scenarios.

Uber, the ride-hailing app that has invested heavily in AV technology and its development, has deployed cars in Tempe, home to Arizona State University, which the U.S. News & World Report ranks first in "innovation."

Meanwhile, Waymo, which fits under the Alphabet company umbrella, has been testing its technology in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix, since 2016. The cars — Chrysler Pacifica minivans — have been driverless since mid-October.

Officials in both cities pointed to their tech communities and cultures as a central attraction for their growth as AV test beds.

“Tempe has a really good reputation as a progressive community. We have a really an extraordinary collection of tech-related business and employees working in technology,” said Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, as he ticked off companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Go Daddy, which all have offices in Tempe.

The tech connection also resonates in Chandler, said Micah Miranda, the city's economic development director, who noted that more than a quarter of the job base is in technology research or manufacturing and software development.

“So we’re very, as a community, about technology and what it can do for us,” he said.

Waymo was also taken with Chandler's grid network of streets and an opportunity to test in a setting that includes "extreme weather" events like duststorms, as well as some unusual vehicles like golf carts and tractors, said Miranda. 

“We have a very pro-business, low-regulation community mindset,” said Miranda, summing up some of the larger philosophies guiding econonmic development, and by extension, AV testing.

The governor's office has made AV-friendliness a priority. The state doesn’t require any special permitting or licensing by companies to test their cars on Arizona streets and highways.

“Because of Arizona’s ‘hands-off’ approach to this field, we don’t require any special permits or reporting requirements of the companies that come here to test,” said Ryan Harding of the Arizona Department of Transportation. “Our goal is making sure companies developing the technology have a hurdle-free path while ensuring key areas like safety are addressed.”

Other companies like Intel and General Motors have also turned to Arizona for autonomous vehicle testing. 

“I would put Arizona in the group of ‘Come in, we’re open for business’ states,” said Tara Gill, state program director at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which tracks traffic accidents and deaths. “They categorized themselves as having a very light hand in the process in order to encourage technology development.”

Car and technology companies have responded in kind. Uber has about 200 self-driving cars deployed in the San Francisco; Phoenix and Pittsburgh metro areas, say officials. In Tempe, Uber’s test cars do not shuttle passengers without a human test-driver in the front seat. And the cars operate within a set test route.

“Arizona has led the way when it comes to embracing ridesharing,” said Sarah Abboud, a spokesperson for Uber. “Gov. (Douglas) 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.”

Some 20 states now allow for some form of autonomous vehicle testing — California alone has permitted testing for dozens of vehicles by 45 companies, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Lyft, another major ride-hailing car service, is the latest.

In Chandler the agreement between the city and Waymo is not a “formal relationship,” but a “mutual partnership that benefits both the testing companies and Chandler,” according to Miranda. Neither Chandler, nor Tempe has set any sort of end date for the testing.

“It is like an ‘open test,’ if you will,” said Mitchell, the mayor of Tempe. “We just hope that the technology continues for further advancement. You want to be at the forefront of these things.” 

Tempe was the site of the state's first crash involving a driverless car in March when a human-driven car collided with one of the Uber test cars. Officials determined that the self-driving car was not at fault.

Saftey is something Tempe takes seriously, said Mitchell. However, concerns about safety “haven’t been an issue."

Chandler addressed concerns about the safety of the testing during a two-day open-house Waymo hosted as a way to answer resident questions and familiarize the community with the technology.

“And I think that answered a lot of people's questions and concerns,” said Miranda. “And now we see the cars on the road constantly, and it’s sort of no big deal now.”

“It’s been a very open and transparent process,” he added.

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 Sacramento.
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