Arizona motorists soon may be sharing the road with autonomous delivery vehicles the size of small automobiles that don't have seating for humans.
Nuro, from Mountain View, California, has spent months looking for the perfect, regulation-free environment to begin testing and operating its innovative, all-electric vehicle.
It's found just the right place in Arizona, which has continued its lax regulatory policy for autonomous vehicles after an Uber self-driving Volvo killed a pedestrian on March 18 in Tempe.
Nuro's co-founder and president, David Ferguson, signed a registration letter to the state Department of Transportation for the company on April 17, confirming that it planned to start testing fully autonomous vehicles on Arizona roads.
On March 1, Governor Doug Ducey published an executive order to address fully autonomous vehicles, adding a modicum of oversight to his pro-business policy. All companies that intend to put fully driverless vehicles on Arizona roads in the near future, or are already testing them on roads, were ordered to register with the state within 60 days.
As of May 2, Nuro was one of only two companies that had filed the required statement.
Waymo, a Google company, filed a similar statement with ADOT on March 26. That was expected, since the company announced in November that it would test no-backup-driver vehicles in Arizona.
Metro Phoenix residents have grown used to seeing semi-autonomous vehicles from Uber, Waymo, Intel, and other companies buzz around on city streets in the past year. But fully autonomous vehicles differ in one significant respect: They have no backup drivers in the driver's seat.
Nuro vehicles don't have driver's seats — or any seats at all for humans. The narrow, four-wheeled robots have room for 10 average-sized shopping bags. With hot or cool storage areas, Nuro's website shows, they can be used to deliver everything from hot pizzas to Amazon packages.
Ferguson, in his letter to the state, says that Nuro "will soon commence testing and operation of fully autonomous vehicles" in Arizona. He also said that Nuro looks forward to working with DPS to develop the "law enforcement interaction protocol" and that the company will publish its own interaction plan with 60 days after DPS releases its protocol plan.
DPS has not yet confirmed whether it has developed, or has started working, on the interaction plan.
Nuro hasn't said when it will start testing its vehicles in Arizona. Neither Ferguson nor other Nuro representatives responded to New Times' request for comment on Wednesday.
Ferguson and his partner, Jiajun Zhu, are both engineers who previously worked for Google's self-driving technology division before starting Nuro in mid-2016.
"With a flexible interior design, our vehicle handles errands of all kinds – from dinner to dry cleaning," Nuro's website states. "With no driver or passengers to worry about, our vehicle has been engineered from the ground up to keep what’s outside even safer than what’s inside."
Ferguson and Jiang announced in January that their company had raised $92 million in capital funding, putting it in league with Starship, Udelv, Dispatch, and other companies that are moving forward with wheeled package-delivering drones.
Like Uber's self-driving cars, Nuro's vehicles are equipped with cameras, radar, and lidar.
Starship, an Estonian company, brought one of its ice-chest-size vehicles to the State Capitol earlier this year to lobby for a bill that would let the vehicles operate on sidewalks. The Legislature approved the bill (it awaits Governor Doug Ducey's signature), but that won't affect Nuro because its vehicles are made to mix it up with full-sized automobiles on the road.
The public may find out the hard way if fully driverless vehicles are safe or not.
Semi-autonomous vehicles don't have a great record so far in metro Phoenix, thanks to Uber. The San Francisco company best known for its rideshare service stopped all self-driving car operations in Arizona and other states after the March 18 crash that killed 49-year-old Mesa resident Elaine Herzberg.
The governor's office has previously said that it knows of seven other companies testing, or that have tested, autonomous vehicles with backup drivers in the state: Waymo, GM/Cruise, Ford, Tu Simple, Embark, Intel, and Peloton.
A multi-agency investigation of the Uber crash remains ongoing. As Phoenix New Times' feature article on the crash pointed out, Ducey seems to be partially responsible for Herzberg's death. He invited Uber to come to Arizona because of its lack of rules, and the vehicle's autonomous technology apparently had a major malfunction that might have been avoided if self-driving companies were forced to be more transparent.
Even with Ducey's March 1 order, companies like Nuro don't have to provide the permitting or safety data required by California for fully driverless vehicles.
Ducey's order mandates that companies testing driverless vehicles need only affirm in the statement that:
• They will comply with traffic laws,
• They meet standard insurance and Motor Vehicles Department registration requirements,
• Their vehicles can stop safely or otherwise meet "a minimal risk condition" if the autonomous technology fails while on the road.
The order states that ADOT can issue a cease-and-desist letter to any company failing to submit the registration statement to the state within 60 days of beginning to test a fully driverless vehicle; ADOT didn't report that it has sent out any such letters yet.
Ducey's order also directs the state Department of Safety to begin developing protocols and information that can be disseminated to local police departments and sheriff's offices about how to deal with traffic violations and accident scenes that involve fully driverless vehicles. Until now, police officials have been pretty much on their own to decide how to deal with semi-autonomous vehicles, and they've adopted the governor's hands-off policy.
Police in Tempe and Chandler, where Waymo has focused its testing, took an unofficial stance that the backup drivers in autonomous cars would be responsible for any traffic violations. As video evidence showed, backup driver Rafaela Vasquez wasn't looking at the road in the crucial seconds prior to the crash. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery has yet to announce his decision on whether he'll charge Vasquez with a crime over the incident.
Before the March 18 Uber crash, Ducey's staff told New Times if a fully driverless vehicle commits a traffic violation that leads to a death, the corporation that owns the vehicle could be charged with a crime.
(Note: The story has been updated to reflect the fact that the personal delivery vehicle bill passed the Legislature.)
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