In a quietly prosperous suburb southeast of Phoenix, a minivan is revolutionizing transportation. Oddly shaped Chrysler Pacificas, with no driver behind the wheel, swarm the streets of Chandler. They are Waymo’s boldest foray yet into autonomous vehicles. Waymo (a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet) and its competitors have helped place Arizona governor Doug Ducey and seven-term Chandler mayor Jay Tibshraeny, Republicans both, at the front lines of a technological revolution that has only just begun.
At a tech conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in November, Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced that the company was running test vehicles without a human driver. Up to that point, Waymo’s self-driving vehicles had had a human test driver behind the wheel. Now they were to operate in full autonomous mode, with the human as a passenger. “After more than eight years of development, we’re taking the next step toward unlocking the potential of fully self-driving technology,” Krafcik said. And there was more: A robo-taxi fleet is coming very soon, Krafcik promised. And all of this is happening first in Chandler.
Waymo’s leap to what is known as Level 4 autonomy is a big deal. Tesla’s Autopilot, for example, is merely a semi-autonomous Level 2, meaning that a human driver must remain on call behind the wheel. Few people expected full vehicle autonomy so soon. But in the past two years, Waymo’s sensors have started “seeing” three times as far, for 10 percent of the cost. Other tech and auto companies are nipping at the firm’s heels. All told, businesses and investors have poured more than $100 billion into self-driving technology since 2010.
Tibshraeny is not surprised that this driverless revolution is taking off in Chandler. “We’re an innovative, tech-driven city that knows how to work with businesses, and we’re enthused with this kind of technology,” he told me. No doubt it helps that Chandler has predictably nice weather and wide, straight roads. But so do other cities. Chandler — and Arizona — consciously chose to follow the path of driverless technology, going wherever it took them.
In the knowledge economy, winners win more. By the time Waymo’s cars hit the road, Chandler was already home to a bevy of technology firms, including Intel’s chip factory, aerospace firm Orbital ATK, and the navigation company Garmin. And the city was becoming a hotbed for autonomous-vehicle testing and was developing a supply chain in auto manufacturing. What began as a General Motors IT outpost has become a 1,100-person driverless-car R&D center. “One of our good selling points with Waymo was all of our high-tech companies and the path our city was on,” Tibshraeny says.
The advantages of being ahead of the curve are likely to continue. Waymo’s cars are, for now, barred from driving more than 100 miles outside Chandler. The city’s residents seem to like that this technology is staying close to home. When Waymo first held an open house there, in August 2016, more than 2,000 residents showed up to see an autonomous car and ask when they could ride in one. Now, with the firm’s Early Rider Program, they can. Hundreds of locals have access to what is essentially a driverless taxi fleet. It is not unusual now to see a Waymo robot car dropping a child off at school. In the next few months, 600 Waymo cars will be operating in Arizona, with most in Chandler.
Retirees and the disabled have proven the most enthusiastic early adopters of driverless cars. This makes sense: Those who have the least ability to drive have the most to gain from being driven. When Waymo launched a publicity campaign in early October to promote self-driving technologies, the Foundation for Senior Living, a local association providing care to the elderly, joined as a partner. So did Mothers Against Drunk Driving and organizations for the blind. Chandler’s experience seems to demonstrate that the more people make use of these vehicles, the more likely they are to see the upsides of automation.
Tibshraeny is not one to ignore his constituents. How else do you still claim a mayoralty that was first yours when Bill Clinton was president? Governor Ducey also pays close attention to what residents want. So when Waymo arrived in August 2016, the company was greeted with open arms. “The enthusiasm for new tech from the public and Governor Ducey makes Arizona a place where innovation can thrive and companies like ours can set up roots,” Waymo told the New York Times in November.
Waymo “wasn’t really demanding,” Tibshraeny told me. “They just wanted to see that we were a city that was obviously business-friendly.” His staff has worked closely with the company, and, by the mayor’s account, they are getting along well. “We just keep the communication lines open and make sure we’re always on the same page — which we are.” That includes such tasks as closing off a street and surrounding Waymo’s minivans with blaring police cruisers, fire engines, and ambulances so that the company’s engineers can gather data on what the emergency vehicles look and sound like.
Tibshraeny has an ally in Governor Ducey, whose hands-off stance toward the regulation of driverless cars has led critics to label Arizona a “Wild West.” But that label is “just not true,” says Kevin Biesty, the deputy director of policy at the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). “What measure can we put in place that will guarantee people’s safety that we’re not doing now?” he asks. Safety should be the main goal for overseers of driverless cars, and Biesty believes that most states already have what they need to achieve it. “We are confident that the laws and regulations that we have in place work well for this technology.”
Arizona was considering legislation on driverless cars as far back as 2012. Two bills directed the state’s regulators to develop rules on safety and insurance and to require “kill switches” and driver alerts if the autonomous technology failed. Arizona is not alone; 41 states and the District of Columbia have considered similar legislation since 2012, with 21 of them passing such rules. The Arizona legislature ultimately decided that the two bills were premature. With Governor Ducey’s election in 2014, the state decided to take a completely different approach.
In 2015, Ducey examined existing Arizona laws on motor vehicles and concluded that no new legislation was needed to ensure safety on the state’s roads. Instead, he signed a two-page executive order directing the state’s agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads.” That included forming an oversight committee, made up of the relevant regulatory agencies, to advise policymakers. That body has formally met twice in the past year and suggested only one measure, on autonomous commercial trucking, prompting accusations that the state is asleep at the wheel.
Nonsense, says Biesty. “Believe it or not, there are things that happen outside of these meetings.” If we let bureaucracy and regulation weigh down this innovation, he argues, we’ll increase the time that these “life-saving technologies” will need to get out on the road. Instead, ADOT has chosen to treat driverless vehicles just like any other automobile. “We have plenty of regulations that direct how a motor vehicle should act on the roadways,” he adds. As long as a car like Waymo’s is registered and insured and operates within current statutes, he argues, it should be allowed to drive on Arizona’s roads.
Rather than legislating based on future fears, “we regulate as actual problems or harms come up,” Biesty says, reflecting Arizona’s permissionless attitude toward innovation. Lawmakers can identify needed regulations or legislation only by letting cars such as Waymo’s loose in the wild and by holding open, ongoing dialogue with the public and companies. This also gives consumers time to ponder knotty questions, such as whether parents should be allowed to send their children alone in a driverless car to their grandparents’ house. In the meantime, says Biesty, “we’re here to facilitate the safe operation of business and commerce and foster an environment where people want to live, work, and play.”
Time is of the essence for developing driverless cars. More Americans were killed in car crashes last year than died in the three years of the Korean War. Automobiles are becoming safer, but distracted driving and auto collisions are on the rise because screens are often more alluring than the road. Ninety-four percent of collisions are caused by human error. The weakest link in driving is still the driver.
It’s easy for journalists to criticize driverless cars. The media widely covered, for instance, the collision in March between a human driver and an Uber self-driving SUV, which flipped on its side after an accident in Tempe, Ariz. (Police later found that Uber’s car was not at fault.) Yet on the same day in the same metro area, a 65-year-old man lost control of his car and went airborne, killing himself and seriously injuring three others. While there remain significant unknowns with driverless vehicles, what we do know is that accident rates are lower for autonomous technology than for human drivers, and that the technology’s performance is improving over time. To officials in Arizona, that is evidence enough that they cannot wait for the perfect car and that the more autonomous cars they allow on the road, the rarer auto fatalities will be.
The near future of driverless cars is likely to be boring. To spend a day in Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica is to be chauffeured by the most methodical, cautious, and courteous driver on Planet Earth. Chandler residents already were used to ridesharing; now they’re just upgrading to a better driver. There is no speeding or sudden braking, no texting at red lights. It’s as if you had a driver who had been through the world’s toughest driving school. Indeed, each Waymo car has the equivalent of 200 to 300 years of driving experience under its belt. Its “eyes” can see 360 degrees simultaneously, to a distance of almost three football fields away. It’s never tired, never distracted, and never drunk.
Waymo and its competitors are building cars for today, in a world without smart roads or skilled drivers, a world that, as Mayor Tibshraeny believes, will continue to have civilian hands on the wheel as well as professional drivers handling public-transit vehicles. But one block at a time in Chandler, Ariz., driverless cars may be making the world a dramatically safer place. “I’m in the middle of it,” says Tibshraeny, “and sometimes I stop and say, ‘Wow, this is awesome.’”
– Mr. Hendrix is the director of state and local policy at the Manhattan Institute.