The future of transportation has come to Arizona, which, as of last week, is officially the testing ground for Uber’s new line of self-driving vehicles. As recently as Tuesday, the 21st, residents of Tempe can ride in new, self-driving vehicles as part of Uber’s service. This makes Arizona the latest state to feature a test-run of the vehicles, after Pittsburgh in 2016. If customers are unsatisfied, or worried, about riding in the self-driving vehicles, which are primarily Volvo XC90 SUV’s, they are free to decline the opportunity using their mobile app.
Uber’s experiment with providing self-driving cars for public use began last September in Pittsburgh and was slated to continue in San Francisco in December, near the company’s headquarters. However, the company ran into complications with the state’s DMV regarding the way the test vehicles were licensed and, after less than a week, the cars were pulled, with the company instead choosing Tempe as it’s west-coast testing ground for the vehicles. The company’s experiment experienced a considerably warmer reception in Arizona, with Governor Doug Ducey going so far as to pass an executive order to allow autonomous vehicle technology be tested on certain public roads. The order also allows for the implementation of a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee, as well as the establishment of programs at universities statewide to study Autonomous Vehicle technology. Apparently unsatisfied with these provisions alone, Ducey went a step further and volunteered to be the first customer in the state to ride in one of the vehicles last Tuesday, kicking off the event. His “safety driver” was the head of Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group, as well as the founder of self-driving technology company Otto, Anthony Levandowski.
The governor’s apparent enthusiasm for the vehicles should come as a relief to customers who may otherwise not entirely know what to expect from the cars. According to an article by the Washington Post, commenting on public reaction to the cars in Pittsburgh, most citizens who showed concern over the vehicles seemed to do so under the assumption that the vehicles would be completely driverless, with no Uber employees present in the vehicle. While Uber’s Volvos seem to be entirely capable of managing such an accomplishment, the current slate of test cars all come with a human driver who is capable of taking control of the vehicle should a malfunction occur. Even Ducey’s orders stipulate that autonomous test vehicles at work in Arizona must have a licensed driver, authorized by the entity developing the car’s technology, present who is capable of manually operating the vehicle should the occasion require. Alongside the “safety driver” the Volvos acting as the test vehicles are capable of carrying up to three other passengers.
As big as this is for the company, and for the state, Uber is not the only entity testing driverless technology on public roads. Most notably, GM has begun testing it’s “Albatross”, a self-driving, modified Chevy Volt, in cities that include Warren, Michigan as well as Detroit and even San Francisco, the company having apparently managed to meet the state’s licensing specifications that Uber could not. However, GM has been decidedly tight-lipped about other aspects of it’s driverless initiatives; although, according to The Verge, the motor company has made a $500 million investment in Lyft in the hopes of better developing self-driving technology.
But perhaps most relevant is Google, which has already been testing its own automated vehicles in Phoenix and Chandler for a little over a month. As with Uber, these vehicles, in this case a set of modified Chryslers, have ‘safety drivers’ on hand. How the experience of the two companies will measure up waits to be seen, although according to AZCentral, Google has yet to fully publish its results. What is known is that at least three of Google’s vehicles have been involved in accidents, all of which have been determined to be the error of the other, manned vehicle (at least one of which was piloted by a driver under the influence of alcohol, apparently the first time such an incident has occurred involving an autonomous vehicle).
Naturally, if the program proves successful, it could mean tremendous changes to the concept of transportation, as we know it, certainly with regard to consumer taxi services like Uber. What this will mean for jobs in the area, primarily for Uber drivers, remains to be seen, but for now Uber seems optimistic about the results the experiment will yield for our understanding of automated vehicle technology, as does the state of Arizona.