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Why General Motors' Cruise autonomous vehicles picked Phoenix to restart its operations

General Motors’ Cruise autonomous vehicles are starting to test their technology on Valley roadways. They will have a human safety driver in the car as well. The company says it’ll start in a limited area of Phoenix before expanding to Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Tempe, Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler.

Cruise has had troubles in the past, including having its license suspended in California after an incident in which an autonomous vehicle dragged a pedestrian after that person had been hit by a human-driven car.

The testing in Phoenix comes at the same time another autonomous vehicle company, Waymo, is under investigation by the National Highway Safety Administration for reported traffic violations and crashes.

With The Show to talk about all of this is Andrew Hawkins, transportation editor at The Verge.

Full Conversation

MARK BRODIE: So why Phoenix? And why Cruise? I mean, we detailed just a small percentage of some of the issues Cruise has had why are they deciding to start testing in Phoenix now? 

ANDREW HAWKINS: Yeah, I think it's because Cruise was looking for an ideal place to sort of restart its operations after its many problems that you listed in California, and it needed that place to not be California because I think it's still going through a process to get its permit renewed by the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. And obviously, Arizona has been somewhat of a hotbed for autonomous testing in recent years, mostly around Waymo. Cruise has tested very limited a number of vehicles in the past, and now it seems like it's it's interested in sort of reestablishing its relationship with with the area. 

BRODIE: Is there any sense within the industry that some of the problems that it has been dealing with in California and elsewhere have been fixed?

HAWKINS: So I think Cruise would argue that it's in the process of trying to fix them, and the main problem that it needs to fix is reestablishing public trust, which it says pretty, pretty plainly and that that's sort of what its main intentions are. That's why it's starting only with us a really limited number of vehicles, just two vehicles that will be driven autonomously with safety drivers in the front seat monitoring the vehicle at all times. It does not say when exactly it plans to pull those safety drivers out of the vehicles, even if it plans to do that at all, and it has not said when it plans to start restarting its commercial robotaxi operation. So right now, it's in the reestablishing public trust phase, but you know, it's really hard to determine, you know, sort of what metrics it's using to gauge whether or not that trust has been reestablished.

BRODIE: Well, especially, I would imagine if you only have two vehicles in a very small section of a fairly large and spread out city. I mean, you I'm assuming Valley residents could go a very long time without even seeing one of these. 

HAWKINS: Yeah, I think that that's exactly right, and there have been some in the industry that have convincingly argued that this is mostly just theater, that Cruise is testing these vehicles. It's been, you know, trying to be transparent about what it's doing. But you know, the argument that it's making, that it needs to have the safety drivers in there and sort of go through this whole process, it's really not backed up from a technological point of view. I mean, the company has been able to operate driverlessly for for years now in several several cities. There's no reason to assume that they need to start restart at sort of at first base at home base with with all of this or at square one. But I think it's just doing that as a way to sort of demonstrate publicly that it's trying to go slowly and conservatively throughout this process.

BRODIE: Interesting. All right. So let's talk about a company that a lot of Valley residents have seen, and many have even tried: Waymo. There's an investigation from the federal government, what exactly are they looking into? 

HAWKINS: Yeah, so what it's what they're looking into is not nearly as serious as what Cruise has sort of been through. The the mishaps that they've are examining are pretty minor fender benders and crashes. But what they're saying that they're they want to establish is just you know, whether or not the technology is robust enough to to handle some of this, these safety situations that the companies claim is its primary primary focus of why they're why they're operating autonomous vehicles. And I think what it shows is that, you know, Waymo is seen as being somewhat of the leader in the space. They have the most advanced technology. They have sort of the the cleanest track record, but even so, that there have still been a number of incidents involving their vehicles over the past six to 10 months.

And I think that that's because as they sort of tried to ramp up and, you know, move into sort of the next phase of their operations, they are expanding to new cities like Los Angeles, and they said that they're potentially interested in going into additional cities after that, that as more vehicles hit the road, you're going to start to see more of these types of incidents as the technology sort of clashes up against our very human-focused driving infrastructure. And I think that even with a company like Waymo, where their technology is seen as being so far advanced over other companies, that's still going to present an issue for them.

And so I think what NITSA is trying to look at, the federal government regulators that are the agency that's looking at these issues, is trying to just see whether or not there are any potential sort of cracks in Waymo's system. And I think they're trying to be more on top of this under the Biden administration than they have been in the past. It seems like in some ways I wrote about this on The Verge, that the free ride for driverless vehicles appears to be over by this point. 

BRODIE: So does this, I mean, if you're Waymo, or if you're a Valley resident who enjoys using Waymo, any reason to think that, you know, things are going to change in a dramatic way here?

HAWKINS: It doesn't seem so not at least not in this these early this early stage of this investigation. There could be, you know, negotiations with the company and regulators over whether or not there needs to be a recall for some are part of Waymo's system. But right now, this is just a preliminary investigation. They're just sort of gathering information. They haven't made any determinations as to whether or not what Waymo needs to do or what the government needs to do. So I think that that we'll get some more clarity on that, but Waymo has said that it intends to continue to operate its commercial service while this is going on.

BRODIE: All right. That is Andrew Hawkins, transportation editor at the verge. Andrew, good to talk to you. Thank you. 

HAWKINS: Yeah, always a pleasure. Thanks.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.