Chandler was the first city in the nation to host a driverless ride-hailing service when Waymo One opened in 2020. Now, Waymo has competition. Cruise, under General Motors, opened their new robotaxi service in Chandler to a limited market late last year.

DEEPER DIVE: McCarthy opens Innovation and Craft Workforce Center in Chandler

In the past few years, Chandler, Arizona has gained a reputation as a key city in the developing industry of self-driving cars. Both companies, Waymo and Cruise, have headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area, but they chose Chandler as an early testing location for their services.

Chandler helps develop self-driving cars

Mark Stewart, a member of the Chandler City Council, said that the city’s role in the testing and development of these vehicles has improved the reputation of Chandler as a city that is “open to innovation.”

Stewart has spoken on Chandler’s role in the autonomous vehicle industry on several occasions, including talks at Princeton and at a conference held by the International Association of Transportation Regulators.

In these talks, Stewart cites three reasons why Chandler has become such an important testing ground for autonomous vehicles: great infrastructure, a focus on public safety, and a community that is receptive to new technologies.

Stewart argues that this new technology will make Chandler’s roads safer and will make its citizens more productive.  He likens self-driving cars to autopilot on airplanes and says that autonomous vehicles have some inherent advantages over human drivers.

“Waymo doesn’t get distracted, doesn’t drive impaired, and doesn’t have to deal with passengers yelling at it from the back seat.” said Stewart.

When Waymo first started to explore Chandler as a testing ground, Stewart said they first went to state and local governments, and then went to their public safety divisions.

Stewart said that when Waymo went looking to find a city to test their self-driving cars in, their focus on safety sold him on the idea.

“[Waymo] said ‘We’re not a tech company, we’re a safety company,’” said Stewart.

Micah Miranda, the Economic Development Director for the City of Chandler, says that there have been no traffic accidents in Chandler where a self-driving car has been at fault, and only a few where a self-driving car has been involved at all.

As the city’s Economic Development Director for the past eight years, Miranda has been with the city the entire time self-driving cars have been operating on the city’s streets.

Impact of self-driving cars on economy

Miranda says that while no studies have been done on the economic impact of self-driving cars in the city, the impact these companies have had on the city’s reputation has been positive.

“From a non-quantitative perspective, it’s drawn interest in the community.” said Miranda.

Miranda says that another reason Chandler has seen so much attention in the self-driving car industry is that Chandler is “a community of early adopters.”

Neither Stewart nor Miranda have seen any significant pushback from residents who share the road with autonomous vehicles.

Miranda noted that some residents were concerned about how the vehicles would park, and raised privacy concerns about the vehicles’ cameras, and Stewart recalls seeing only one complaint from a local driver.

“I’ve seen one e-mail from a resident who said they were driving too slow.” said Stewart.

Aside from these few complaints, city officials report that the community’s response to sharing the road with these cars has been positive.

While Miranda says the city saw a lot of attention regarding self-driving cars, he says that self-driving cars aren’t as novel as they once were.

“We saw a lot of media and community interest, now they just blend in.” said Miranda.

According to Amanda Ventura-Zink, a public affairs manager for Waymo in Arizona, Chandler appealed to Waymo for many reasons, including local regulation regarding autonomous vehicles. She says the Chandler government, as well as the state government, were very welcoming to self-driving cars.

“There were a lot of considerations when Waymo came out to Arizona, and in particular the East Valley, because we were met with open arms.” said Ventura-Zink.

Other reasons she cited were the good weather in the region, and the design of the city itself. Ventura-Zink said the city’s “wide, beautiful streets,” 45 mph speed limits, and good weather contributed to the company’s decision to test in Chandler.

“When any human is learning how to drive, I assume that someone took them to an abandoned parking lot, whether that’s a school on a weekend, or a church or a grocery store… I think that the East Valley was really similar to that kind of ideal place where we would want to teach our Waymo driver how to safely navigate the world.” said Ventura-Zink.

According to Ventura-Zink, the company is proud of their community ties to the Phoenix area.

“We’ve spent so many years with the Metro Phoenix community, getting to know them, getting to know how they move around, what they want, need and expect of this service. In a lot of ways, this is a Phoenix-grown service.” said Ventura-Zink.

One example Ventura-Zink provided was how the company worked with Valley Metro to offer reduced-fare rides for those with mobility issues, matching the cost of local paratransit fare for a six-month test period. 

“There were some people who were really skeptical to start and then by the end of those six months, they were like, I exclusively use Waymo. We saw people going out more, more connected to the community.” said Ventura-Zink.

Waymo One currently operates in two separate service areas, including their original area in Phoenix’s East Valley, and a newer area in Downtown Phoenix, including Phoenix Sky Harbor.

Compared to Waymo One, Cruise’s service in Chandler is still somewhat limited. Cruise only offers rides to those on their waitlist between 7 PM and 2 AM, and they only offer rides in a five-block area in central Chandler. 

Cruise represents the first real competition to Waymo One, which has held a monopoly on autonomous ride-hailing in the Phoenix metro area since launching Waymo One to the public in 2020.

While Chandler was not the first place that Waymo tested their self-driving technology on public streets, Ventura-Zink says Chandler is a key part of the history of Waymo, as well as the history of autonomous vehicles in general.

“I think that Chandler is such an important part of our story, and such an important part of all autonomous vehicle history, and it was the perfect place for us to build this service.” said Ventura-Zink.