Self-driving vehicles, once a science fiction technology, are rapidly becoming a reality that promises to transform our lives – making it safer and more efficient to move people and goods, while reinventing our thinking about transportation.
Arizona, one of the leading areas for autonomous vehicles, is the proving ground for this transformative innovation.
This fleet of driverless cars — 600 Chrysler Pacifica mini-vans, operated by Google’s Waymo — can be seen today daily on the streets where companies like GM and Ford also are testing autonomous innovations. Arizona startup Local Motors developed “Ollie,” the self-driving bus here. And ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber have scaled their operations while deploying their own self-driving vehicles.
Under Governor Doug Ducey’s direction, the state has played a leading role in this dramatic evolution of mobility – and it’s done so by getting out of the way. Arizona’s focus on encouraging innovation, while ensuring public safety, has created an environment where the testing and development of this technology can thrive.
Led by the Arizona Commerce Authority, the state is advancing an economic development strategy focused on the idea that while technological advances are the keys to prosperity, the support of an innovation ecosystem that includes private industry, state government and academia, is crucial.
So as the debate about testing and regulation of driverless cars arose in several other states, in 2015, Governor Ducey stepped forward and signed an executive order instructing state agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.”
“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,” the order said.
Upon signing the order, the governor announced that Uber would be forming a partnership with the University of Arizona (UA) to support research and development of state-of-the-art lenses and sensors, which help autonomous vehicles navigate.
In addition, UA researchers and the Maricopa County Department of Transportation have received funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation to test new technology in Anthem, Arizona, that connects traffics signals and cars. This will provide real time information about driving obstacles to improve driver safety.
Other industry-leading companies like Ford and GM have also moved their driverless car operations to the state. GM operates an IT Innovation Center in Chandler and the Cruise Automation facility in Scottsdale. Waymo, which partnered with Intel to design, build, and test its autonomous vehicles, is testing its autonomous car fleet on the streets of Phoenix.
While testing and research are underway on driverless cars, policymakers also took important steps to explore the impact on community safety and infrastructure.
For example, they have established the Arizona Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee, a team of transportation, policy, and public safety experts who will help the state conduct research on self-driving technology. The committee will work closely with both the Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety, advising the agencies on the safest ways to roll out driverless cars on public roads.
As exploration of these innovations moves rapidly forward, the social and economic impact of this new era of transportation is just beginning to be understood.
For instance, autonomous vehicles have the potential to dramatically reduce fatalities and increase safety, because they will never drive distracted, tired, or impaired like human drivers. Daily commutes could be more productive for millions of people who now spend their time behind the wheel on the way to work.
And self-driving cars also hold the promise of increasing mobility and efficiency in transportation. They could also offer new independence for people, young, old, and those with disabilities, who can’t drive a car. Self-driving cars in ride sharing fleets also have the potential to provide affordable, on-demand transportation for people who cannot afford to own a car, or live in communities with limited transportation options.
And as car ownership moves from something personal to something people think of as a ride-sharing service, these vehicles have the potential to ease traffic congestion, reduce pollution and have a major impact on transportation infrastructure.
The potential offshoots of this technology seem almost limitless – and Arizona’s commitment to developing this industry has ensured it will have a leading role in creating a new road map for transportation.
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