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By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
City leaders are learning about driverless cars and how they may transform markets, as well as life in Surprise.
An early step in the learning process came last week when Eric Anderson, transportation director at the Maricopa Association of Governments, accepted an invitation from Mayor Sharon Wolcott and District 1 City Councilman Roland F. Winters Jr. to talk about the emerging technology during the March 20 City Council work session at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza.
“The city of Surprise is just the kind of city that could benefit from this new technology,” said Ms. Wolcott.
Before launching into his prepared presentation, Mr. Anderson paused to address concerns over reports of the March 18 accident, which claimed the life of a pedestrian in Tempe.
“What I want to start out with is addressing that happened in Tempe,” Mr. Anderson said. “A really tragic accident – a 49-year-old-woman hit and killed crossing the street mid-block … the investigation is underway.”
With investigations ongoing with both the Tempe Police Department and the National Traffic Safety Board (a rarity for the agency, which mainly investigates airplane and train accidents), evidence seems to suggest the car-pedestrian collision was unavoidable, Mr. Anderson explained.
“Police officers were quoted as saying that even a human driver wouldn’t have been able to stop,” Mr. Anderson said. “A lot of people are saying this is really going to set autonomous vehicles back. I don’t think so, because the technology on board is such that it could have prevented it if the woman had indicated she was about to step off instead of just doing it.”
Citing news reports, he claimed Maricopa County is among the most dangerous places for pedestrians nationally and the new technology may actually improve safety.
“I’m a big fan of autonomous vehicles,” Mr. Anderson said. “In fact, the technology that’s available today, would have prevented a very serious accident my daughter was in 12 years ago – almost lost her – that technology exists today … that wouldn’t have happened with the technology we have today.”
Among other potential short and long-term impacts, driverless cars may increase access to transit services in low-density and outlying suburban communities, where traditional mass transit options are not economically viable, Mr. Anderson explained.
Ms. Wolcott noted such improvements could have an impact in Surprise in particular, where providing mass transit and paratransit services, especially for older and physically challenged residents, remains a significant challenge.
“Here we are, we’re a relatively new community, and we happen to have an opportunity to be on the cutting edge of the next generation of technology for transportation delivery,” said Ms. Wolcott. “We struggle with providing transit services to our residents … clearly we’ve been looking at this technology.”
Surprise Public Works Director Mike Gent echoed the mayor’s optimism, saying in an email statement after the event that last week’s presentation is just the start of a larger conversation.
“The implementation of fully autonomous vehicles has the potential to reduce traffic and congestion and provide access to many of our residents – including seniors and those with disabilities – to travel when and where they prefer,” stated Mr. Gent. “As this technology advances, our policies and priorities must adapt, and we anticipate significant further discussions on this topic.”
Councilman Winters sought confirmation of how driverless cars may affect local and national businesses, especially in the service industries.
“I guess in theory then, there’ll be no accidents, so we’ll not need any auto repair shops any longer. Insurance will go down because there won’t be many accidents,” Mr. Winters postulated.
Mr. Anderson confirmed the new technology may indeed have profound effects on the business environment in ways experts may not be able to fully predict.
“Exactly right and the experts are saying your insurance premiums could go down like 80 percent,” Mr. Anderson answered. “Reduction of crashes – not only do we have the human life and suffering of serious injuries; there are 2 million serious injuries a year, too – but we also have all the other ancillary industries – body repair shops as you say, insurance companies, rental car companies providing cars while your car is getting fixed, all those sorts of things.
“The private automobile industry is $2 trillion in the United States and it’s made up of all these little industry sectors. This technology as it rolls out is going to be very disruptive in terms of the industry.”
There are already more than 500 autonomous vehicles operating in the Phoenix area, with companies like Uber and Waymo conducting road tests based out of Tempe and Chandler respectively. Robot vehicles may apply to over-the-road freight haulers, taxi cabs, local circulator shuttles and helicopter passenger drones, Mr. Anderson explained.
Advances in battery design and robotics, along with the emergence of the ride-share market with Uber and Lyft, have greatly accelerated research and expectations in the transportation industry over the past few years, he said.
“The experts are saying, by the year 2025, battery technology and pricing is going to be such that a fully electric vehicle will be at the same price point or less than internal-combustion engines,” Mr. Anderson said.
The rapid pace of advances, along with business-friendly regulations, have made the Arizona desert a fertile ground for driverless cars, with as many as five different companies currently testing out the technology on roadways around the Valley, he said.
“We have a very open regulatory environment for the testing being done here,” Mr. Anderson said.
Recent surveys show Americans perceive driverless cars with skepticism, largely because they are unaware of the underlying technologies that make it possible. But as they become more aware, people will come to realize how much safer autonomous cars can be.
“Consumer acceptance is the key,” Mr. Anderson said. “As these cars become more mainstream, I think you’ll see this shift fairly dramatically.”
He said experts predict by the year 2030, driverless vehicles could account for as many as half of vehicles sold in the U.S.