Why automakers flock to Arizona to test driverless cars
See how self-driving cars prepare for the real world inside a private testing facility owned by Google's autonomous car company, Waymo. USA TODAY
It’s hard to miss the driverless car phenomenon that’s been growing dramatically in Arizona.
The state is a hub for testing self-driving vehicles. The relatively light regulatory environment of the past two and a half years has promoted considerable growth, attracting companies such as Uber, Lyft, Intel, General Motors and Waymo, formerly Google's self-driving car project.
But the Grand Canyon State has had a privileged relationship with car manufacturers for decades.
Next spring marks the 25th anniversary of Toyota’s proving ground in Wittman. Ford, Chrysler, General Motors and Nissan, among others, also test vehicles in the desert surrounding Phoenix.
Richard Woodroffe, Toyota’s Arizona proving-ground manager, said the state's weather conditions are the No. 1 reason why the facility was placed in the state. Consistent weather allows for year-round testing of vehicles, and low rainfall means minimal disruptions to their work.
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“The Phoenix area specifically also has relatively low winds and a temperature range that is conducive to completing regulatory tests almost every day of the year,” Woodroffe said. "Arizona also allows the testing of vehicles in extreme high temperatures," which makes worst-case scenario testing possible.
In addition, the desert offers car manufacturers a remote and private testing location that's away from the prying eyes of competitors and the public.
Take, for example, General Motors’ proving ground in Yuma. The facility, located inside the U.S. Army’s Yuma Proving Ground, was chosen because the area is a no-fly zone. The company previously tested on a proving ground in southeast Mesa. Encroaching urban sprawl and money-saving measures led GM to move to Yuma after more than 56 years of operating the Mesa facility.
The business climate in Arizona has improved for automakers recently, particularly for driverless-car manufacturers. Gov. Doug Ducey has been supportive of the technology.
In August 2015, Ducey signed an executive order allowing the testing of autonomous cars on public roads, hoping the cars will fuel "economic growth, bring new jobs, provide research opportunities for the state’s academic institutions and their students and faculty, and allow the state to host the emergence of new technologies.”
According to the order, as long as the car has liability insurance and the person responsible for it has a driver’s license, it’s a go.
Laws and regulations aren’t the only things attracting autonomous carmakers to Arizona. Good weather combined with the perfect amount of urban density and great roads are determining factors, too.
The sharing economy, or the trend of owning less and sharing more using the Internet, played a role in Uber’s choice to set up operations in Phoenix.
“Arizona has led the way when it comes to embracing ridesharing,” said Stephanie Sedlak, Uber spokeswoman for the Arizona market. “Governor Ducey has made the sharing economy one of his top priorities during his time in office and, with that foundation in mind, Arizona is an ideal place for Uber to introduce self-driving cars.”