Waymo, part of Google parent company Alphabet, is testing driverless car technology in parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area, including Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert. (Waymo)

Speaking at ULI Arizona’s 2018 Trends event, futurist Jack Uldrich compared the present to a photo of New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1900 in which horse-drawn vehicles crowded the street. A second image shot just 13 years later shows a roadway filled with autos. “Buckle up,” he advised. “It was a time of profound change. We are poised to live through a similar transition. [And it will] be confusing.”

Autonomous vehicles, smart cities, and how Arizona is poised on the leading edge of what Timothy Burr, director of public policy for Lyft, dubbed “the third transportation evolution” were the overriding trends featured at the conference. The state’s emerging status as a hub for innovation and a place where practices and concepts that comprise smart cities and new methods of transportation are being incubated. The state has become a test case for self-driving cars, but it is also attracting companies such as startup Nikola Motor Co. which plans to build a $1 billion factory to produce hydrogen electric fuel cell tractor trailers in Buckeye, west of Phoenix. While Uber has ceased it’s testing in Arizona since a pedestrian fatality in March, other firms are still focused on a driverless and often electric transportation system of the future.

“Autonomous vehicles are really just one key part of what we’re calling a connected place,” said moderator Brad Wright, of law firm Squire Patton Boggs, introducing a panel exploring “the nexus between autonomous vehicles and smart cities.”

An executive order from Arizona’s governor, Doug Ducey, in 2015 created the initial momentum around the adoption of autonomous vehicles, one that took into account public safety and governing but that also fostered exploration. Panelist Chris Camacho, president and CEO, Greater Phoenix Economic Council, said this position fits into the “narrative of a state that historically has had a limited regulatory, pro-business framework.”

Earlier this year, Ducey updated the order to permit driverless cars without anyone behind the wheel on any state road. In late January, Waymo, a unit of Google’s Alphabet, got a permit to operate as a Transportation Network Company, which allows Waymo’s fleet of driverless Chrysler minivans to pick up and drop off paying riders through a smartphone app or website. Although Lyft partners with a number of manufacturers, the company is developing its own self-driving system. Uber has ceased it’s driverless car testing in Arizona since a pedestrian fatality in March.

Autonomous vehicles rely on identifying their surroundings and panelists expect them to drive the development of smart infrastructure. “Smart infrastructure is a really critical question right now,” said Veronica Siranosian, senior project manager with the global architecture and engineering planning firm AECOM Ventures, pointing to recent research in which seven out of ten professionals involved with civil infrastructure said we are not going fast enough to keep pace with the growth of technology. Siranosian focuses on the transformative effects of emerging technologies for transportation. “What smart infrastructure means is using data to inform decisions. Now we have the opportunity with sensors and the Internet of Things to do that.” Having a single purpose infrastructure is no longer an option. “Right now,” she said, “I am really thinking about infrastructure as a multipurpose asset.” Examples of smart infrastructure would be roads that can charge vehicles or street lights with WIFI.

In his talk, Uldrich explained the utility of the Internet of Things with the example of a new bridge in Minneapolis which includes 400 sensors measuring everything from vibrations to temperature to traffic flow.

“When we think about bringing technology and infrastructure together, I think the critical component is not to forget that we want these communities to be smart places for people,” Siranosian said.

Also critical, according to Siranosian, are policy responses to new technologies such as smart vehicles. “So, it’s not only the built environment but also setting the policy and regulatory framework to get to that smart city of the future.”

Looking at the regulatory environment and the work of regional coalitions, Camacho used the word intentionality. “The objective is to balance the regulatory policy so that technology can occur. We have the opportunity of 22 cities working together, and we look at this as an intentional plan of how we adopt smart technologies, focusing on interoperability, focusing on advanced planning and the distinction of what comes out of this. It’s really a plan by which we address the digital era through regulatory policy, through collaboration and the focus on brand,” he said.

Speculating on the effect of autonomous vehicles on the built environment, panelists looked beyond the obvious reduced requirements for parking to opportunities for single family homes and new ways of connecting with transit. Not needing a garage in the house will create new ways to use that space, since parking can be sited further away from the house. “You can have second units there, and you could have live-work space that really opens up a lot of potential,” said Siranosian. “Overall, we really won’t need parking in high volume locations. Vehicles will be circulating more and not sitting in one place all the time. Additionally, since vehicles will just be talking to themselves, there will be no need for opening and closing doors, so parking spaces themselves could be smaller.”

Already, Siranosian says they are advising clients to build new parking garages with flat floors and potential for HVAC and electrical so they could be converted to future use. Other interesting changes she anticipates include integrating mobility hubs that would incorporate bike share, drop off and pick up for an automated shuttle and perhaps access to transit in one location.

“Creating opportunities for the public to interact with autonomous vehicles is going to be critical for consumer acceptance,” said Burr. “The turning point for autonomous vehicles will come when the public understands.”