Best of the West: Emergence of autonomous vehicles; wildfire’s effect on snowpack; world’s largest firework

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the news of the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Feb. 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of Nuro Inc.

A variety of autonomous vehicle startups are working to make driverless cars a reality in the West.

Based in Mountain View, California, privately held robotics company Nuro Inc. recently received approval to deploy 5,000 low-speed electric vehicles in Houston, Texas over the course of the next two years, according to Reuters. The vehicles, which lack human control mechanisms like a steering wheel, will deliver goods such as groceries or pizza as part of a partnership with companies including Walmart Inc. and Domino’s Pizza.

Nuro’s federal green light from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration , a culmination of a three-year dialogue, marks the first time the agency “approved a petition to allow deployment of automated driving systems without meeting all existing U.S. auto safety standards,” Reuters reports. Automakers are normally required to comply with approximately 75 different criteria, but since Nuro’s vehicles will not be operated by human drivers, regulators allowed features such as windshields and rearview mirrors to be omitted.

This compromise, according to Governing Magazine, has sparked a broader federal conversation around the need for updated autonomous vehicle regulations, a topic that has remained largely undiscussed since a 2018 bill died in the Senate.

In Arizona, another startup is also making inroads into the driverless car sector. Waymo, which began as Google’s autonomous vehicle project in 2009, will start delivering parcels in Phoenix for shipping and logistics company UPS, according to Tech Crunch. For now, Waymo says that these deliveries will only be made from UPS storefronts to sorting facilities for processing, and not to customers’ homes. Furthermore, the vehicles will include a trained employee who will help monitor operations. 

Solving Rural Issues: Reps. Caroline Nilsson Troy and Sally Toone are working together in Idaho on a bipartisan political collaboration called the Farm, Ranch and Timber Issues Caucus, intended to foster cooperation on issues pertaining to rural life. According to the Bonner County Daily Bee, Troy and Toone “envision the caucus not as a lobbying group, but rather an opportunity to share information and perspectives between rural and urban legislators.” On Feb. 3, the Caucus held its inaugural meeting, attended by around two dozen lawmakers from both chambers of the state’s legislature. Going forward, Troy and Toone are optimistic that the Caucus will build on its initial success and continue to grow. 

Wildfires and Snowpack: Experts from Brigham Young University recently uncovered a connection between wildfires and an increased level of snowpack, finding that the amount of water in Utah’s snow increased 15% for every 20% increase in burn severity, KSL reports. The researchers behind the report explained that this can either have a positive impact on the environment, providing the region with more water security, or a negative impact, leading to corrosion, nutrient loss and the potential for flooding. The determining factor, they explain, is the location of the fire in relation to how much direct sunlight it receives. In addition, the presence of dust and soot, which increase snowmelt rates, can also play a role in whether increased snowpack can lead to flooding in certain areas. 

Adaptive Skiing: Oregon Adaptive Sports (OAS), a nonprofit organization based in Bend, is helping skiers with disabilities enjoy the slopes of Mount Bachelor, regardless of any physical or cognitive hurdles they may face. Founded in 1996, OAS helps people of all ages and abilities enjoy a wide variety of outdoor activities, including horseback riding, kayaking and rock climbing, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting. Beyond providing its clients with specialized equipment, employees of OAS also provide one-on-one instruction, all the while fostering a sense of community and friendship amongst its participants. “At OAS everyone is included regardless of what their movements look like, regardless of what their speech is like, regardless of any perceived ability level,” said OAS’s Kellie Standish.

World’s Largest Firework: On Feb. 8, a four-person team, led by local fireworks enthusiast Tim Borden, launched a roughly 60-inch, 2,800-pound firework into the skies of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, breaking the previous world record of approximately 2,400 pounds. The feat represents a byproduct of seven years of work, during which Borden’s team created progressively larger fireworks, slowly inching towards their goal, New Scientist reports. For the record attempt, the shell casing – comprised of well over 5,000 feet of packaging tape – took around a month to build. When it came time to launch, an attendee from Guinness World Records watched their creation rise 2,000 feet into the air, confirming that the team had indeed secured a new record.

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