Tuesday, July 30, 2013

5 Reasons Self-driving Cars Should Be Tested in Arizona

Full disclosure: I want a self-driving car.  And yes, I live in Arizona.  Phoenix, specifically, which is all the more reason to read this post.

My bias aside, I'd like to spend some time making the case for why Arizona should be the test site of the eminent self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles. Many of these reasons make up why I love living here, and why I would be terrified to move to somewhere like California.  

What's more, if anyone is looking for someone to test such cars, please know that I do a lot of travel, both day-to-day and road tripping, and yes, I will definitely sign up to test your self-driving car.

So, without further ado:

1 - Arizona is home to the nicest freeways
I couldn't find any stats on the best marked freeways in the US. (I did find a list of the worst freeways in the US, and can tell you that nothing on the list is in Arizona.  4 of the 5 worst are in California.) Still, I can tell you from personal experience of driving all over the country, Arizona's freeways are wonderful!  The signage is clear and gives you plenty of time to prepare; you always know exactly what lane you have to be in and when.  Autonomous cars will eventually need to get good at discerning bad signs (or have a different / smarter support infrastructure altogether), but for testing, I'd think you'd want to give them a fighting chance at success.   

2 - We've got sunshine!
While great signage is a start, its going to be hard for the autonomous vehicles to read them if they can't even see them.  Phoenix is one of the sunniest places in the country, with 211 clear sunny days per year, and 85 partly sunny days, giving us 85% sun year round.  Compare that to 73% sun in LA, 68% sun in San Diego, 66% sun in Tampa, Florida and San Francisco, and the choice is as clear as day (in Arizona).  It's funny, but even when its pouring rain, it can still be bright and sunny in Phoenix, a phenomenon I've never seen outside the state.  And when it does rain, it lasts a very short time and then resumes our usual, beautiful blue skies.

3 - Arizona has less red light runners
Red light running is probably going to be an anomaly that, while still needing to be addressed, will be very difficult to program around for autonomous cars.  Thus, early testing should be done where there are less red light runners to reduce early crashes and truly test the viability and logic of the self-driving car, not how it reacts to anomalies.  When all cars are autonomous, we won't have to worry about this problem.  

One research project classified 55.8% of US drivers as red light runners, while Arizona only had 52% red light runners.  Florida and California both had a higher percentage of red light runners.  The study didn't give specifics on all 50 states, but of the 10 focus states, Arizona had the lowest percentage (12.9%) of responders say they had run a red light at least once in the last 10 intersections. The national average was 19.4%, with California and Florida again being higher than that of Arizona.  California and Florida also had a higher percentage of crashes that resulted in red light running.   

4 - Strict DUI laws means less drunk drivers in Arizona
Arizona's Sheriff Joe is nothing if not known for his harsh punishments and strict enforcement around driving under the influence.  In 2011, 30% of fatalities on Arizona roads was related to alcohol.  While that number may seem high, compare that to the National average of 36%, California's 34% or Florida's 31%.  Arizona was the state with the 8th lowest percentage of fatalities due to alcohol.  Much like red light runners, drunk drivers are going to add complexity to an already complex system in autonomous cars, so ideal locations are those with low levels of drunk driving to begin testing.  

5 - Electronics can't take the heat
While most of my reasons are around creating a favorable environment to test the logic of the self-driving cars, I think it is also important to put the actual equipment to the test.  We have seen Arizona's extreme heat become a problem for electric vehicles that don't have cooling systems for their batteries.  In fact, many Nissan Leaf owners have lost 50% or more of their battery capacity in a matter of months, due to the extreme heat.  Thus, not wanting history to repeat itself, any vehicle relying heavily on electronics should be thoroughly tested in extreme conditions like those found in the Phoenix or Tucson areas of Arizona.  

I love my extended-range electric car, the Chevy Volt, but it still requires me to do the driving.  That means staying awake and not texting or tweeting or facebooking, and to me, driving is a big time suck.  I would much rather spend my time productively, or dosing off as needed.  If that means being an alert driver while testing an autonomous vehicle, so be it.  I am, in my opinion, a very safe and defensive driver.  I still trust the computer more than I trust my feeble human skills.  So, if anyone is looking for someone to test such cars (wink, wink, Google... nudge, nudge, Mercedes Benz), please know that I do a lot of travel, both day-to-day and road tripping, and yes, I will definitely sign up to test your self-driving car in the best location possible: Phoenix, Arizona.  

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