Arkansas Senate approves Walmart-backed proposal to test drive self-driving vehicles

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 2,470 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Tuesday (March 12) took a final step to allow Walmart, J.B. Hunt and other Arkansas companies to “test drive” up to three autonomous or driverless vehicles on state roads and highways.

In a short session on the Senate floor, House Bill 1561 by Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, was easily approved by a vote of 27-5 with three members not participating. It will now be sent to the governor’s office, where Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to sign the law that will make Arkansas the 30th state to allow driverless vehicles on local roads.

Under HB 1561, the state Highway Commission would adopt rules that allow Arkansas companies to submit a plan to develop pilot programs to test self-driving or autonomous vehicles for the first time in the Natural State. The program would begin 60 days after the Highway Commission approves a state plan for Arkansas to comply with federal motor vehicle safety rules and meet all insurance requirements.

In introducing the bill, Senate co-sponsor, Sen. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, told his fellow lawmakers the measure will open the door for Arkansas companies to operate driverless car systems designed to function at a “four or “five” automation level, the highest rating for a fully-automated driving system under the Society of Automobile Engineers.

In questioning from fellow lawmakers, Pitsch admitted that he was running the bill on behalf of Walmart, which is already testing autonomous driving systems in other states. The Fort Smith lawmaker, however, said the bill would also allow the state to capture some of the jobs and capital investment from the evolving technology behind the emerging automated driving sector of the auto industry.

“The biggest point to make is that we already have companies in Arkansas that can do this in other states, 29 of them are already approved by statute,” Pitsch said. “By them doing it here in Arkansas, we bring technology and high-paying jobs and we invest back in our state.”

Pitsch added: “(This) is not new technology. It is new to us. Fifteen years ago the first state approved autonomous test projects like we’re voting on here today.”

Immediately after Pitsch made his appeal, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, peppered Pitsch with a volley of questions about the safety and efficacy of self-driving vehicles on Arkansas roads.

In their back and forth, Rapert first asked if Pitsch had ever been a passenger in a driverless car. He then went on to describe his own experience as a participant in test-driving an autonomous vehicle as the past president of the National Council of Insurance Legislators.

“I rode in one of those vehicles in Arizona just a few weeks before they had it run over and kill someone,” Rapert said. “And so, there is no doubt the technology is coming, and the technology is there, but there is no doubt that the technology has flaws.”

Rapert, who later voted against the first-of-its-kind legislation, further asked Pitsch for assurances that Walmart and other Arkansas companies would not be allowed to launch pilot testing on “open Arkansas roads” and highways unless the program was completely safe for all drivers.

“I would just tell you that the company I’m referring to in Arizona that had the best equipment in the entire world on this issue is the same company that had a person killed,” Rapert told Pitsch. “And I would just encourage you that you hold their feet to the fire if we are going to start this.”

Although Rapert did not mention Walmart specifically, the Arkansas-based retailer tested self-driving cars last summer at one of its retail locations in Chandler, Ariz., that chauffeured customers to the store for pickup and then returned them home.

Under the pilot program with Google-owned Waymo, personal shoppers pick customer orders based on chosen pickup times and a tech-enabled autonomous vehicle picks up the customer and drives them to the store where they retrieve their order. They are then driven back home by Waymo’s self-driven easy rider, which company officials said gives customers a unique experience with an amazing technology.

“Waymo is a self-driving technology company with a mission to make it safe and easy for everyone to get around – without the need for anyone in the driver’s seat,” said Tom Ward, vice president of Walmart’s e-commerce operations. “They’ve safely self-driven over 8 million miles on roads across 25 U.S. cities already. We’re working with them on an online grocery pilot project – limited to a group within Waymo’s 400 daily users known as easy riders.”

In November, Ford Motor dealers in Miami-Dade County, Fla., announced they were working with Walmart and final-mile delivery service Postmates to deliver groceries from Walmart via autonomous vehicle. Ford said the collaboration will explore how self-driving vehicles can deliver many everyday goods such as groceries, diapers, pet food and personal care items.

So-called delivery service has also become a recent focus for Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services, which completed a $100 million acquisition of New Jersey-based carrier Cory 1st Choice Home Delivery in February. In 2017, the carrier spent $136 million to buy Houston-based carrier Special Logistics Dedicated, and it was the first time in 26 years J.B. Hunt had acquired another company. The carriers were integrated with J.B. Hunt’s Final Mile division, a part of the company’s Dedicated Contract Services segment.

Pitsch said besides Walmart, the Arkansas Trucking Association was also one of the key backers of HB 1561. The bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House on March 4 by a tally of 91-1 with seven representatives not voting.