Obstacles For Self-Driving Cars in NYC

People look on at Audi’s self-driving car near Chambers Street on Sept. 27. Audi cannot legally test the car in New York until the state changes a law which blocks the technology.

Last Thursday morning during the morning rush hour, the 42th and 7th intersection was a packed, people moving between trapped cars like a school of fish. A biker is stopped midway through a turn ready to pedal through the crowd. The road is so congested that cars have to wait two lights to drive one block.

On October 3, the Obama administration released its policy guidelines for autonomous vehicle (AV) developers, those that are producing driverless cars, in order to fast-track the testing of the burgeoning technology. Already, eight states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation for robotic cars. And New York has four bills allowing for and regulating AV pending at the Assembly Committee on Transportation.

But according to transportation policy experts, it will be a while before there are AV-capable cars on New York City streets. Owen Gutfreund, an Associate Professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College, said there are three major barriers to the introduction of these cars in NYC including: a state law which prohibits driverless technology, a lack of adequate regulations and the need for infrastructure to support these cars on city streets. He said, just to begin the process there needs to be a digital database of traffic constraints, safety standards and a structure for dealing with the legal liability and insurance issues.

Gutfreund said New York City in particular is one of the worst places in the U.S. for driverless technology because the specific driving conditions are incompatible with those of other places where driving is more predictable.

“Think about things that a New York driver processes that go far beyond watching the lane markings and monitoring the distance to surrounding cars — what are potholes like on the block ahead, whether or not the car in front of you is a taxi that is cruising for fares,” he said.

Darrell West, the director of Governance Studies at The Brookings Institute, said cars being tested by Google are very good at navigating congested areas, but the City must encourage the technology by allowing for, and monitoring, pilot programs.

“There is no substitute for on the road testing,” West wrote. “That is how the software will get better.”

Before AV developers can begin testing the cars in the City, legislators would need to amend a 1971 law mandating there must be a hand on the steering wheel when a vehicle is in motion. The New York State Senate has passed a measure in May that would change that law to permit self-driving technology, and it is now at the State Assembly.

New York State Assemblyman David Gantt, who chairs the Assembly Transportation Committee, said the Committee will consider the federal guidelines once the Assembly is in session in January.

Ryan Calo, Co-Director of the Tech Policy Lab at the University of Washington School of Law, said that some of the laws can be easily changed, like tailgating laws which currently prevent the close-driving of autonomous vehicles.

“The most difficult thing is going to be setting a threshold of safety, just how safe does a vehicle need to be before its allowed to be on the road,” Calo said.

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