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Arizona is a hub for driverless cars. Here's why — and what's next for autonomous vehicles

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, August 22, 2023 - 11:03am

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Waymo driverless vehicle next to a traditional Uber
Tim Agne/KJZZ
A driverless Waymo vehicle pulls up next to a traditional Uber in downtown Phoenix on March 25, 2023.

It’s not uncommon in many parts of the Phoenix metro area to see a car driving down the road with a large spinning dome on top, sensors near the headlights and on the back of the car, and nobody behind the wheel.

Waymo has been operating in the Phoenix area for a while now, and has been expanding its service area. The driverless taxis now run from Chandler into Scottsdale and west to Interstate 17. The company says the 180-square miles available to riders in the Valley makes it the largest "fully autonomous, paid ride-hailing service area in the world."

Autonomous vehicles are touted as a way to help people get where they’re going without having to drive. Supporters point out the vehicles are especially helpful for people without cars, or seniors who aren’t able to drive themselves. But critics point out some of the challenges with not having an actual human behind the wheel, including in situations involving emergency vehicles.

Waymo vehicle
Christina Estes/KJZZ
Waymo technology includes lidar, radar and cameras.

And, it’s not just Arizona that’s considering the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles. California regulators recently approved a plan for Waymo and Cruise to expand their services in San Francisco. The city’s attorney, though, is now asking the California Public Utilities Commission to reconsider that decision.

So, given how much the technology has evolved over the last decade-plus, and how prevalent autonomous vehicles have become in the Valley, The Show wanted to get a sense of exactly where we are — and where we may be heading.

To do that, The Show sat down with Junfeng Zhao, an assistant professor in Arizona State University's Polytechnic School and founder of the Battery Electric and Intelligent Vehicle Lab, and Marisa Walker, senior vice president at the Arizona Commerce Authority and executive director of the Institute of Automated Mobility.

The conversation covered everything from why Arizona has seemed to become such a proving ground for these vehicles to how much of the viability of this technology comes down to trust.

Junfeng Zhao and Marisa Walker
Nate Boyle/KJZZ
Junfeng Zhao and Marisa Walker in KJZZ's studio in August 2023.

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