Arizona plans public, private automated vehicle research hub

An autonomous Volvo, operated by Uber, in Scottsdale, Ariz., in Dec. 2017. Photo credit: REUTERS

Arizona wants to solidify its position as a leading site for the testing of self-driving technology.

Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order Thursday that established the Institute for Automated Mobility, a public-private partnership that will form a research center and proving ground where companies can vet and improve the safety of self-driving vehicle systems.

“As we look at this automated future, one of the key challenges we still face is, ‘How do you know an autonomous vehicle is worthy of a license to drive?’ ” said Jack Weast, vice president of autonomous vehicle standards at Mobileye and senior principal engineer at Intel, the founding corporate partner in the project. “And this challenge is one we are very pleased to tackle together with the state.”

A site has not been chosen but plans for the institute include an enclosed 2.1-mile test track where companies can test and repeat scenarios that may be too dangerous for public roads. Such a site would keep Arizona’s testing operations on pace with other states, such as Michigan, whose leaders see autonomous vehicle technology as an economic-development catalyst. The Arizona Commerce Authority will oversee the institute.

Financial agreements and terms related to the construction and management of the institute were undisclosed.

About a dozen autonomous vehicle test tracks exist or are being built across the country, but two features of Arizona’s ambitions help differentiate the state’s plans from others. State officials say they will create a first-of-its-kind Traffic Incident Management Center, in which law-enforcement officers and first responders will play a central role in developing policies and procedures for investigating crashes involving automated vehicles.

Investigating autonomous-vehicle crashes is something Arizona’s law-enforcement agencies are somewhat familiar with — the first known fatality caused by an automated vehicle occurred in Tempe, Ariz., in March, when an Uber self-driving test vehicle in autonomous mode struck and killed a pedestrian. Ducey subsequently banned the company from testing in the state, and the incident remains under multiple investigations.

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Separately, companies participating in the partnership will have access to Mobileye’s Responsibility Sensitive Safety model for r&d efforts to engineer and build safer vehicles.

Despite the broad promise that autonomous vehicles may one day reduce traffic deaths and vehicle crashes, the industry has yet to define safety in an autonomous era or determine how safety may be better measured. “The meaning of safety in regard to AVs is surprisingly unclear — no standard definition exists,” according to a report released Thursday by Rand Corp., a nonprofit think tank.

Intel subsidiary Mobileye proposed an answer to that question in 2017. Amnon Shashua, now the company’s CEO, wrote a paper that drew attention in industry circles, detailing the Responsibility Sensitive Safety model, which essentially codifies human ideas of safe driving into mathematical formulas that ensure an autonomous vehicle would do everything it can to avoid entering an unsafe situation.

For example, the company’s mathematical models would ensure that a self-driving vehicle would maintain enough distance in front of it, so that if a vehicle ahead suddenly braked, the autonomous vehicle would have enough time and distance to stop. Or if some other car ran a red light while the self-driving car had a green one, the automated vehicle would brake to thwart a crash.

Three Arizona public universities are participating in the partnership, and Weast says the Responsibility Sensitive Safety model can be a foundational element of their automated vehicle-related research going forward. With the Arizona Department of Transportation and Arizona Department of Public Safety also on board, the Institute seeks to be a catch-all for setting standards and procedures for automated vehicles.

“What we have here is a concierge service, designed to help partners easily and effectively execute their research-and-development projects,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, a Ducey adviser who is managing the institute’s corporate engagement strategy. “There’s one-stop shopping. … We really have put this together to make this natural and a good relationship between government, academia and industry in building a robust ecosystem.”

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