August 9, 2019

Automation in Arizona

Arizona 360 explores how some companies and organizations are taking a proactive approach to automation.

This week we focused on the economy and an emerging topic: the role of automation and its impact on jobs in the future. Arizona 360 got a closer look at how some companies and groups are taking a proactive approach to integrating the technology. It’s an issue being studied by the University of Arizona Eller College of Management. Economist George Hammond explained some of the findings, including which industries are mostly likely to be affected by automation.

“The industries that are likely to be most affected by automation are going to be leisure and hospitality, especially food preparation and serving. The trade, transportation and utilities sector, and that’s both the retail trade as well as transportation,” Hammond said. He also referred to jobs in warehousing and mining as highly automated environments.

Based on data from 2017, the study found about 154,000 jobs in Tucson are at high risk of automation, or about 42% of the local workforce. Statewide, the risk increases to 45% and would impact 1.1 million jobs. Nationally, it climbs to 46%, which represents about 63 million jobs. Hammond says the full effects would take decades to manifest.

“But what’s harder to study and that we don’t try to estimate in our work is the jobs that will be created. And they may be brand new industries and brand new occupations,” Hammond said. “Think back 30, 40 years ago there were no webmasters. And now we have a whole lot of webmasters. So it will be something like that, that we don’t even see coming just yet.”

You can learn more about Hammond’s report on automation here.


Each year semis haul more than $20 billion worth of goods across the state and its border with Mexico. Arizona’s interstates are also the prime testing ground for TuSimple, an international company developing driverless commercial trucks.

TuSimple arrived in Tucson in 2017, two years after Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order that established the ground rules for testing self-driving vehicles on public roads. Today it tests a fleet of nearly 20 semis equipped with radar, lidar and cameras on routes along Interstate 19 and Interstate 10 between Nogales and Phoenix. Long-term goals include developing a truck that can cover long distances without a driver. However, a driver would still be necessary for shorter distances in more urban areas. Test drivers include Mo Fitzgerald, whose career in trucking spans more than 30 years.

“When I applied here I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll be a test driver and this is going to replace everybody’s job.’ And it’s the complete opposite. This is going to take the boring, monotonous driving out that most drivers don’t want to do,” Fitzgerald said. “The technology is here now to make it more exciting for younger people.”

Driver shortages are a present issue for the industry, according to Robert Brown, head of TuSimple’s government relations and public affairs in Arizona.

“The American Trucking Association says we’re short around 50,000 drivers today and it’s growing to over 200,000 in the next few years,” Brown said. “My cousin’s 22 years old and he wants to be a trucker. He’ll retire a trucker if he wants to be. So what we are trying to do is offset that acute driver shortage in that long haul segment right now.”

In planning for the future and the type of worker TuSimple will need, the company teamed up with Pima Community College to create a new certification program launching in September. PCC will train experienced truckers on the systems used by TuSimple. Missy Blair manages PCC’s transportation program and explained why the college is embracing autonomous technology.

“The college has been very hyper-focused on workforce. So this is something that we really want to be able to help the community with getting upskilled. Because as we know, things are moving rapidly in technology and so we have to be able to adapt to that,” Blair said. “As the technology gets better and as TuSimple forges their way through the industry, then we’ll be able to also evolve with what they need. So this is just the first step of it.”


Since Waymo arrived in the Phoenix metro in 2016, the company has steadily grown its footprint in the state. Waymo, which shares a parent company with Google, tests self-driving commercial trucks and self-driving taxis in the Phoenix metro. The company has a depot in Chandler and plans to open a second facility in Mesa later this year.

Lorraine Rivera went for a ride in one of the taxis with Dez Hatathli, Waymo’s local policy and community manager in Arizona. Hatathli explained some of the capabilities of its autonomous driving system.

“We have a vision system, which is the camera system located up in the dome. We also use a combination of the lidar and radar sensors. They’re located all the way around the vehicle. It gives the car the ability to see 360 degrees around for about three football fields in length,” Hatathli said. She said the systems are continuously learning how to react to objects in the road and emergency situations.

Autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona came under national scrutiny in March 2018 when a self-driving car belonging to Uber hit and killed a woman walking her bike across a street in Tempe. A report from federal investigators found Uber had disabled emergency breaking while its vehicles were in self-drive mode and relied on backup drivers to intervene. The backup driver involved did not react in time. Arizona suspended Uber’s right to test self-driving cars in the state.

Waymo has never experienced a situation as severe, and the company knows such incidents stoke public skepticism that it must overcome.

“The technology is relatively new. I know there is a lot of apprehension about giving control of the car away to a robot, but I think what we like to do is be able to start the conversation early. So before we come into a city, we like to be able to sit down with local leadership, also with law enforcement and anybody who’s a stakeholder,” Hatathli said. “Take that time to educate them about the technology, but then also answer a lot of questions that might come out of that.”

Community stakeholders include the East Valley Partnership, an organization focused on promoting economic development in the Phoenix metro’s eastern region. President Denny Barney explained the group’s support for Waymo.

“Our feeling is simply this. This is the evolution of transportation. It’s happening right here in the East Valley. The way we move people, the way we move goods is going to change dramatically in our lifetimes,” Barney said.

Currently about a thousand people can request Waymo rides in the Phoenix metro through its app called Waymo One. Feedback from early riders helps the company in its goal to eventually remove safety drivers from its vehicles. Lorraine Rivera asked Hatathli what will become of those drivers once they are no longer necessary.

“As a former driver I’ve transitioned into a new role. And we also have other drivers on the team that have moved to technical operations or some of our other support teams,” Hatathli said. “We’re still very much in the early process of rolling this technology out, but the opportunities are going to be there.”


While some view automation as a way to drive innovation in growing municipalities, in Arizona’s farming fields the technology is also helping researchers break new ground. Arizona 360 saw what role automation has in modern-day farming at the Maricopa Agricultural Center where the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is finding ways to advance what’s known as precision agriculture. The term refers to farmers’ increased use of technology to improve their efficiency. Engineer Pedro Andrade-Sanchez explained how automation’s integration with existing technology is happening at a gradual pace.

“Consequences of a sudden change can also be negative. We want to be building, building for technology that really solves problems and helps our stakeholders in Arizona,” Andrade-Sanchez said.

Machines tested at the Maricopa Agricultural Center include a planter that can automatically adjust how deep it plants seeds based on data about a field’s soil composition. Data used to program automated equipment is gathered by other machines equipped with sensors, cameras and navigation systems.

“At the rate we can cover the field with this machine and other machines like it, it’s nearly impossible to measure with such high resolution and precision, as opposed to a whole group of people trying to do those exact same measurements, said John Heun, an engineer with the university.

The benefits this type of data provides are both economic and environmental. When growers can narrow down problem areas in their fields, they can scale back on the amount of fertilizers or pesticides used to treat crops.


Across all industries, the use of new technologies and automation raises questions about vulnerabilities to hacking. The scenario isn’t far-fetched, according to Larry Head, a professor of systems and industrial engineering at the University of Arizona.

“We’re worried about people taking over automated systems, and so we try to put in safeguards. But it’s going to happen,” Head said. “In every industry where automation is becoming part of what they do, having cybersecurity and understanding the risks and trying to design systems to protect against it is really important.”

Head also discussed steps consumers can take to be safe regarding autonomous vehicles.

“Don’t just sign up with company ‘X’ and jump in their vehicle. Do a little bit of due diligence and see what the history of the company is. Have they been hacked?” Head said. “If they’re having issues with your information, your credit cards, I bet they’re going to have vulnerabilities on other fronts too.”

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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