Weekend closures, lane restrictions impact SR 99, I-5 and I-90

Driving the Future: Self-driving cars are coming sooner than you may think

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The first thing you notice riding in a self-driving Uber, it kind of drives like an overcautious teenager who just got their learner's permit.

At least, that's my take. It seems to hit the brakes when anything that could possibly be a threat comes too close. Also, when it does lay on the brakes, it hits them pretty hard. OK, in all fairness, it's not human. But according to Uber and other companies racing to perfect the self-driving vehicle, it's driving more like a person every day. Only, the company says, eventually it will be a whole lot safer than you or me.

Experts say they’ll make driving safer, faster, and more accessible for all. Realizing the opportunity this technology has to radically transform transportation, automakers, rideshare companies, and others are pushing to develop, test, and perfect self-driving vehicles.

Testing self-driving vehicles

One of the hotbeds for that testing is Arizona. We traveled to the Phoenix area, where Uber provided a ride in one of their self-driving Volvo XC90s. They have about 200 in their entire fleet; 100 of those are running out of Tempe, Arizona.

Photo courtesy: Uber

Uber is testing the vehicles with a vehicle operator behind the wheel. After hitting a silver button in the center console, the car is in self-driving mode. Our vehicle operator named Nick places his hands under the wheel, his feet hover over the pedals just in case.

“If at any point Nick doesn’t like what he sees, all he has to do is touch the brake," says Dima Kislovskiy, Uber's Senior Tech Program Manager of Self-driving Cars.

There are other ways for the vehicle driver to intervene, says Kislovskiy.

"Touch the throttle, touch the steering wheel in any kind of way, and he reclaims control of the vehicle.”

The first thing that grabs your attention is the spinning object atop the vehicle. It's what's called Lidar, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It's a laser that spins 10 times per second, doing a 360-degree sweep around the vehicle. That, plus seven onboard cameras and radar, give the vehicle a three dimensional, high-definition view of everything around it.  If it’s big enough to cast a shadow, Uber says, the Lidar can see it and the car can process it.

Once fully assembled, the vehicles cost up to$300,000. Uber is testing around Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto, traveling a combined 2 million miles and 50,000 trips.

“It was perfect. The ride was absolutely smooth,” says David Statt, who took one of those rides.

I asked him if he was glad there was a vehicle operator behind the wheel.

“Yes, for right now," Statt responds. "But in the future, I’ll be fine with nobody there.”

Many are too scared to ride

Others may need more convincing.

According to a recent study by AAA, 63% of Americans are afraid of riding in a self-driving vehicle. But the fear factor seems to be receding. That was down from 78% the previous year.

“We change those perceptions by bringing this technology to real people," says Brian Cullinane, Uber ATG Product Lead of Self-driving Cars.  "And having people experience it.”

They key, they say to overcoming public fear is creating access for the average person.

It’s not just Uber giving people a chance to ride.

Waymo, Google's self-driving car spinoff, says it is now offering people in the Phoenix-area trips in fully self-driving vehicles. That means there is no backup driver behind the wheel. We spotted two Waymo minivans during our trip. Both had people sitting in the driver's seat.

Intel is also testing self-driving vehicles around Phoenix.

A row of Ford Fusion Hybrid data collection cars sit in the parking lot at Intel.
Credit: Tim Herman/Intel Corporation

Arizona is hot for testing

Why has Arizona become the primary proving ground?

A few reasons. One, Arizona has predictably dry weather and it doesn’t have snow or ice covering the streets, which can cover lane markers creating challenges for self-driving vehicles.

Two, traffic around Phoenix is relatively consistent. The roadways are made up of an easy-to-navigate grid system.

Three,  few rules. The state has stripped away any possible barriers, creating a hands-off environment for testing self-driving cars.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey is even becoming the pitchman, saying he welcomes self-driving cars, "with open arms and wide open roads.”

Why not Washington?

Last June, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made a similar move. He signed an executive order clearing the way for testing in Washington state.

He and others cited the safety of self-driving cars. Many studies say at least 90% of car crashes are caused by human error.

“It doesn’t drive drunk," Inslee said in June. "It doesn’t drive distracted. It doesn’t eat cheeseburgers and miss somebody stepping out in a crosswalk.”

Could Uber soon be testing vehicles in the Seattle area?

“We would really appreciate working in Seattle," says Uber's Kislovskiy. "We were very heartened to see Governor Inslee issue the autonomy executive order.”

Uber says there's still more testing and more learning that needs to be done, before its self-driving vehicles will be available across the country.

“I think we’re right at the start of it," says Cullinane. "We’re figuring out how this technology can really be developed. We see the promise in it and we will get there.”

Driving all of us to a new destination in transportation.