Is a self-driving-car track underway in Surprise?

Catherine Reagor

By Catherine Reagor | November 30th, 2017

Chrysler, Toyota, General Motors and Nissan have tested cars on big swaths of desert along metro Phoenix's fringes for decades.

When new housing communities get too close to their super-secret test sites, the car makers sell to developers for big profits and move farther out. It's part of the Valley's growth pattern.

Now, it looks as if one of the former proving grounds in the far northwest Valley that doesn't yet belong to homebuilders has become a test site for autonomous cars.

Neither business nor Surprise officials will confirm what's happening on the land, or who may be testing vehicles. 

Rumors abound, with some saying DaimlerChrysler's former 5,500-acre proving grounds in Surprise has become a test site for Samsung’s self-driving-car project. This week, auto trade publications are tying Apple to the project

Recent aerial photos show new development is currently underway on the site at 203rd Avenue and Dove Valley Road.

New and repaved tracks and circular courses cover the land instead of houses. 

Several cars can be seen on the site, and they aren't in parking lots.

Cars instead of homes

Chrysler in 2006 sold its huge northwest Valley proving ground for a record $312 million to a group led by home builders Toll Bros. and Meritage. The new community was named Grand Vista.

That deal fell through with the housing crash. New York-based real-estate firm iStar has owned the land, which is slated for more than 10,000 homes, for the past decade. Not one house has been built there.

According to public real-estate records, iStar early this year signed a five-year deal to lease the land to a group called Route 14 Investments.

Route 14 is a Delaware LLC, so it doesn’t have to disclose information on who or what is behind it.

Samsung, which launched a $300 million autonomous driving strategy earlier this year, didn’t confirm or deny its operation on the Surprise site during a call a few weeks ago.

A public relations executive with Samsung asked whether the company’s name or logo could be seen in the aerial photos of the Surprise site.

Apple declined to comment.

iStar hasn’t returned multiple phone calls about the site over the past month.

Surprise annexed the land in 2008 and has said there has been no change in its zoning.

What is clear is Arizona has become a hub for self-driving cars.

Uber and Waymo began testing self-driving cars in the state. Gov. Doug Ducey has been a huge proponent of the technology. 

Secret operations before rooftops

Rooftops are a common site on other big former proving grounds in the Valley.

The popular community Eastmark on five square miles of the former GM proving grounds in southeast Mesa is one of the top-selling new-home communities in the U.S. In 2008, the automaker sold to developer DMB and moved its proving ground away from prying eyes to Yuma.

Nissan considered selling its proving ground near Maricopa in the southeast Valley during the housing boom. But growth in the area stalled with the crash and hasn’t yet restarted near the the car maker's test site.

A former Caterpillar proving ground in the West Valley is now home to the Buckeye community Verrado.

Automakers want secure and private locations to test their vehicles, where competitors can’t spy on their latest models and technology. Visitors to proving grounds are typically asked not to disclose the location.

Technology firms often are even more protective about the secrecy of their new products. It makes sense Apple, Samsung, a partnership between the two companies or another entity working on self-driving cars would be hush, hush.

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