Driverless Cars Won’t Happen In New York Unless This 45-Year-Old Law Changes – Gothamist

Posted: Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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The Audi car with self-driving capabilities wasn’t allowed to be demoed in Albany last week. (Audi)

We’re years away from seeing self-driving cars on New York City streets, and there’s not yet any guarantee that they’ll have stopped crashing into buses and Priuses by the time they do make their way to the East Coast—but NY state lawmakers are already paving the way for the technology, taking another look at a 1971 law that would, as it currently stands, make any hands-free technology illegal.

New York is currently the only state in the country that has a law requiring drivers to keep one hand on the steering wheel at all times while the vehicle is in motion. That single sentence in the state’s Vehicle and Traffic Law means that driverless car technology can’t be tested or demonstrated in the state, and it also means that drivers can be ticketed for using the parking assist features currently available on some cars.

New legislation could change that, though some lawmakers are skeptical about encouraging driverless cars, which they believe could pose hazards, particularly in the city. A new bill from State Senator Joseph Robach, who chairs the Transportation Committee, would amend the Vehicle and Traffic Law to specify that drivers must keep a hand on the wheel while the vehicle is in motion, unless “driving technology is engaged to perform the steering function.”

Robach has presented the bill as a common-sense measure, saying that “we are just trying to have the law match up to the technology that people are using today and I think is only going to grow down the road.” The bill did make it through the Senate and is now under consideration by the State Assembly—but even some of those who voted in its favor in the Senate had their concerns, particularly those who represent districts in New York City.

“Self-driving car technology certainly has a lot of promise, but it’s in the very early stages of development,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, who represents the Upper East Side and parts of Midtown, and voted in favor of the bill but with reservations. “Right now I don’t think we’re at a place where we should be seeing driverless cars of any sort on the streets of Manhattan—there are simply too many variables, with pedestrians, bikes, delivery trucks, taxis. Hands-free options might be more realistic outside of big cities, but for now our crowded streets require human drivers focused on defensive driving. If our laws and regulations need to be adjusted to allow for more R&D, that’s something that should be done carefully and deliberately, not by simply saying it’s okay to take your hands off the steering wheel.”

The two senators who voted against Robach’s bill—Velmanette Montgomery and Bill Perkins—similarly represent city residents in Brooklyn and Upper Manhattan, respectively.

Some driverless cars under development are actually designed specifically for cities: Google, for example, has been testing autonomous cars in cities like Austin, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona, and when those cars have crashed, it has pointed to US DOT data showing that about 94% of crashes are the result of human error. A Columbia study focusing specifically on NYC found that if Manhattan’s yellow taxi fleet were replaced by a smaller fleet of driverless cabs, congestion on city streets could be reduced, and the cost-per-mile in a cab could drop from about $4 to $0.50.

Other models under development are focused less on city streets, and more on highway driving: Audi, for example, is planning to have a car on the market by 2018 that’ll allow hands-free driving on highways, up to 35 or 40 miles per hour, and will focus on increasing that speed before turning to the complexities that arise when trying to engineer a car to navigate obstacle-filled city streets at low speeds. Audi brought prototypes of its autonomous vehicle to Albany in conjunction with the presentation of Robach’s bill, but wasn’t able to actually demo them due to the current state law.

“That law was passed well before anyone thought that computers would be able to steer a car, before anybody envisioned this kind of future other than science fiction writers,” pointed out Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs, who went to Albany in support of Robach’s bill. “It probably was a common sense law back then, but now with hands-free driving really on the horizon, it obviously prevents that.”

Indeed, the idea of driverless car-filled roads can still seem like something out of a science fiction novel, but widespread use of the technology might not be all that far away. Audi says that it will have a model on the market as soon as 2018, and Google has said its autonomous cars will be on the market by 2020. Telsa CEO Elon Musk, meanwhile, has suggested that 2023 may be more likely, as it’ll take some time for regulators to approve the vehicles for public use. Some autonomous car manufacturers have argued that government regulators wouldn’t be able to accurately appraise the vehicle’s safety; meanwhile, a group of business leaders and former members of the military called for federal legislation that would override local barriers to the widespread adoption of driverless cars.

Robach’s bill passed the Senate with just two votes in opposition, but will now have to go to the State Assembly, where it’s currently before the transportation committee. The chair of that committee, Assemblyman David Gantt, has said that he’s not yet sure whether to support the measure.

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