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State to open institute to develop autonomous technology

A Waymo vehicle detects an approaching police cruiser using microphones, cameras, radar and light-based lasers, slowing down and allowing it to pass. The response to emergency vehicles was the focal point of a June 28 demonstration. (Photo by Andrew Nicla/Arizona Capitol Times)

A Waymo autonomous vehicle detects an approaching police cruiser using microphones, cameras, radar and light-based lasers, slowing down and allowing it to pass. The response to emergency vehicles was the focal point of a June 28, 2017  demonstration.
(Photo by Andrew Nicla/Arizona Capitol Times)

Four years after allowing companies to test driverless cars on Arizona streets, Gov. Doug Ducey is moving to make the state the center of testing for the next generation of autonomous automobiles.

In an executive order signed Thursday, Ducey created the Institute for Automated Mobility to promote cooperation among state agencies, the state’s three universities and private industry to ascertain exactly what’s needed to ensure that people are safe, both inside and outside of autonomous vehicles. And that includes everything from including designing facilities to test the technology before it’s deployed and procedures to figure out what went wrong after there’s an accident.

But the goal also includes helping the state adopt policies for operation of these vehicles on state roads, ranging from who is liable in case of accidents to what happens when a police officer pulls over a car or truck and there’s no one behind the wheel.

Jack Weast, the chief systems architect of the autonomous driving group of Intel, said testing autonomous vehicles is far different than the kind of testing vehicle manufacturers already do, much of that in Arizona. The first step, he said, is figuring out what kind of test track or facility is needed.

He said the standard oval test track used by manufacturers is of no use in determining what a vehicle’s programming will do when confronted with any given situation. And while computer simulations can help look for obvious flaws, what’s needed to truly test a vehicle’s artificial intelligence is something that is closer to a real-world scenario.

And that, Weast said, is part of what the institute will design.

“That’s where we’re going to look to existing crash studies and things that will help us understand what are the kind of scenarios that need to be tested to get assurance that the vehicle is making safe decisions,” he said. The goal, Weast said, is construction of a “first-of-its-kind test facility that’s focused on safety verification, not just trying to create a city in the middle of the desert.”

Arizona first allowed companies to begin testing their self-driving vehicles on Arizona roads in 2015.

In March, a vehicle being tested by Uber struck and killed a woman crossing the street in Tempe. And two months later the governor signed legislation allowing 200-pound automated “personal delivery devices” to operate at up to seven miles per hour on sidewalks through August 2020.

But Kirk Adams, the governor’s chief of staff, said it was not wrong to allow testing to occur here, even without answers to some of the questions his boss now wants the institute to resolve. And Adams said it hasn’t been necessary until now to answer those questions.

Take the issue of liability.

That vehicle in the Tempe accident was owned by Uber, with an Uber employee behind the wheel.

“The line of liability is very clear in that case,” Adams said.

The situation is different, he said, if sometime in the future an Arizonan could go to a car lot and buy a fully autonomous vehicle.

“It’s your vehicle, it’s titled in your name,” Adams said, but actually is being “driven” with technology created by the manufacturer and its suppliers. “Where does the liability go?”

Then there are things like the design of streets and even planning and zoning decisions.

“How do our roads need to be designed differently to accommodate more pull-outs for cars as people purchase subscription services for autonomous vehicles rather than own it themselves?” he asked.

All that is anticipation of Level 5 automation, meaning absolutely no human interaction. That, in turn, goes to the testing procedures that the universities will set up with private companies, though the only private firm to sign up so far is Intel.

Sethuraman Panchanahan, a vice president at Arizona State University who Ducey appointed as his adviser for science and technology, said he envisions a “concierge-style service” designed to help business partner complete their research and development projects.

Sandra Watson, CEO of the Arizona Commerce Authority, was more direct in saying that creation of the institute should give Arizona a jump over other states in attracting companies here.

“We’d like to make sure that all automated vehicle technology is being tested in our state,” she said. And that means more than just cars but also trucks and even drones, aerial and ground, that are not designed to carry passengers.

Adams said that last category has cutting-edge applications already being tested.

“It’s almost the size of a golf cart machine in San Francisco that makes your pizza for you while it’s delivering it for you, so that it arrives at your destination hot,” he said.

He acknowledged that raises questions about the safety of having a driverless vehicle weighing several hundred pounds, with an oven at 500 degrees, running around the streets. Adams said the testing contemplated here, coupled with the policy discussions, that the institute is designed to answer.

But it’s also an economic development tool designed to attract industry.

“We want Arizona to be seen as a place where they can get quality research and development with our universities,” Adams said. Consider just one project at Arizona State University.

“If they can put sensors and mirrors on vehicles to Mars, there’s an application for autonomous sensors here on Earth.

There’s one other element of what the institute is designed to figure out: What went wrong after an autonomous vehicle crashes.

Adams said the idea is transparency, with everyone involved – including all the companies in the institute – sharing the information. Still, he said, there may be some bumps, particularly as a firm claims “proprietary technology” they want to keep secret.

“But there also should be a way for regulators to validate what did or did not happen in the event something goes wrong,” Adams said.

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