City Considers Effects of Self-Driving Cars

Manhattan Borough President Brewer opens the Self-Driving Cars forum on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

On September 27, about 100 people crowded into a room at the Manhattan Borough President’s Offices to hear the City’s plans for self-driving cars. The speakers talked about hypothetical driverless futures to a curious audience, some of whom mumbled their concerns or attempted to ask questions during the discussion.

The panelists included representatives from the NYC Department of Transportation, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation and Audi, which has developed a car with self-driving capabilities.

While the speakers praised the potential benefits of self-driving cars for transportation in the City, such as reducing car accident deaths, freeing up road space and providing car travel to people unable to drive, they were hesitant to fully embrace the technology.

“Right now we are in wait and see mode,” said Will Carry, leader of special projects for NYC DOT. “Let’s see first how the tech develops, and how consumers react to it.”

Carry said the City’s priority is to make streets more efficient. Self-driving cars could reduce rates of auto ownership and to free up street parking that we could reprogram for pedestrians.

Sarah Kaufman, Assistant Director of the Rudin Center, said that the fully-autonomous technology is not ready for New York’s dense streets. Driving in New York has a number of hazards that are nonexistent or less extreme in other cities, like cars not staying in lanes, different road markings, and shorter clearances between cars.

“I think we will have the advantage of not being the first place,” Kaufman said. “By the time these vehicles are ready for Manhattan many of these issues will have worked themselves out.”

But the City won’t be able to avoid the technology forever. Tesla has sold tens of thousands of vehicles with an autopilot feature. Google is testing cars in Mountain View, California. Uber has self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh. Meanwhile there have been errors and accidents. Hackers have disabled Google’s cars, and a driver died while using Tesla’s autopilot car. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer said that as this technology continues to expand, it’s important for the City to have a voice in the policies.

“It is government officials’ job now to think about these questions now while we still have time to ask questions and make decisions,” Brewer said.

Carry said that he is reaching out to the federal government to make sure the City’s interests are counted as “cities are at the epicenter” of where this technology is being tested.

After the discussion, audience members asked questions about the safety of the technology. Joanna Smith, a safe streets advocate, said she wanted to know how the City will fund the infrastructure for the new cars. Alex Mackey from AAA New York said he wanted to know more about how clear the road markings would be to these vehicles, and how safe they would be for other drivers heeding them.

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