Catching a ride in an autonomous vehicle—once a futuristic wish—is slowly becoming a reality in the United States, with Arizona offering a glimpse of what the future may look like for passengers riding in self-driving vehicles.
Arizona previously regulated autonomous vehicle testing and operation by executive order. The Legislature held off on enacting autonomous vehicle statutory requirements to allow flexibility for technology companies testing in the state. However, in March, the Legislature enacted, and the governor signed, HB 2813, establishing standards for driverless vehicles in the state. Notably, the law does not distinguish between testing and operating autonomous vehicles on public roads and allows commercial services such as passenger transportation, freight transportation and delivery operations to be fully autonomous. A licensed driver may operate an autonomous vehicle on public roads if the individual can resume part of the driving task or respond to requests to intervene.
A fully autonomous vehicle can operate on public roads without a human driver, but only if the operator submits a law enforcement interaction plan that addresses the protocol developed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and certifies to the Department of Transportation that the vehicle meets certain standards and is titled, registered, licensed and insured. The vehicle also must follow federal laws and standards, comply with all traffic and vehicle safety laws and achieve a “minimal risk condition” if the automated driving system fails. Minimal risk condition is defined in Arizona law as “a condition to which a human driver or an automated driving system may bring a vehicle in order to reduce the risk of a crash when a given trip cannot or should not be completed.”
Companies Ramp Up Testing and Operations
Waymo, one of many technology companies testing autonomous vehicles in the U.S., now is giving fully autonomous rides, with no backup drivers in certain instances, for ride-hailing customers in the Phoenix suburbs of Chandler and parts of Tempe. The Waymo One service has been offering rides to anyone who downloads the app in their service area since October 2020.
Phoenix’s sunny weather, lack of freezing temperatures and moisture, relative paucity of pedestrians and wide roads made it an ideal environment for deploying the world’s first fully autonomous commercial ride-hail service. It’s not the only environment where testing has occurred, though; Waymo has tested in more than 25 locales with differing weather and traffic conditions, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Florida, Washington state and others.
Other states and cities are embracing autonomous vehicle testing as well. For example, according to a recent TechCrunch article, there are now eight companies in California that have procured California Public Utilities Commission permits to provide rides to passengers in autonomous vehicles with safety drivers present. One company, Cruise, has been cleared to carry passengers in vehicles without a driver present. However, none of the companies is yet permitted to charge for rides. Other companies are beginning tests in complex urban environments such as New York City and Miami.
Much of the rationale for autonomous technology is to reduce the thousands of annual traffic crash deaths in the U.S. Nearly 39,000 people died on American roads in 2020 compared with just over 36,000 deaths in 2019, according to estimates in a May 2021 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. As traditional efforts to increase road safety, including new laws and enforcement, seem to have stalled, safety advocates and technology boosters hope autonomous technology can make a real dent in traffic fatalities and injuries.
Douglas Shinkle is the director of NCSL’s Transportation Program.