Opinion

New York City should test-drive autonomous vehicles

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Self-driving cars are not part of some distant future – they’re already on the road.

A range of autonomous vehicles already exist, from cars with a self-driving mode that a human driver can switch on and off, to truly autonomous vehicles that don’t need a driver at all.

Last year, Uber began testing a fleet of autonomous for-hire vehicles in Pittsburgh. Google has been testing driverless technology on the streets of Mountain View, California. And the city of Boston recently announced a partnership with a startup to test an all-electric driverless car fleet.

But despite the growth of the tech sector in New York, and the fact that our city streets probably represent this technology’s biggest challenge, none of these tests are happening here.

Right now, New York is the only state in the country with a law requiring drivers to have at least one hand on the steering wheel whenever the vehicle is in motion. The law was passed in 1971 to encourage safe driving. In an ironic reversal, it is now preventing us from even testing out technology that could make new achievements in traffic safety possible.

Many boosters of autonomous vehicles predict the technology will usher in enormous benefits for dense urban areas like Manhattan. They could make us safer by taking human error out of navigation, for instance. Interconnected self-driving vehicles that can “talk” to each other might move way more efficiently than human drivers who can’t. And vehicles that don’t need drivers could make new models of car-sharing possible, decreasing private car ownership and freeing up space for transit, bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure.

The safety benefits alone, if they materialized, could be huge. From 2012-2014, traffic crashes put more than 50 Manhattan residents in the hospital per month. Nationally, 1.3 million people per year die in road crashes. Imagine if autonomous vehicles could make those numbers a thing of the past.

Of course, there are also plenty of skeptics and critics who caution that the exact opposite may come to pass. They could be right – and they have plenty of recent headlines to point to.

Last September, my office organized a panel discussion to talk about the state of self-driving technology, its possible benefits and its pitfalls. Mere days before the event, a Google test vehicle in California was in a major crash, hit by a human driver running a red light. Around the same time, a self-driving Uber in Pittsburgh drove the wrong way on a one-way street. And in December, a self-driving Uber in San Francisco was caught running a red light. It’s clear that whatever we do, we need to do it carefully.

Changing our state law should not mean a green light for driverless cars on the streets of Manhattan – at least not anytime soon. And we shouldn’t welcome lawless behavior from any company – like when Uber put a self-driving fleet on the road in San Francisco without getting permission from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But with everyone from startups to established automotive giants getting into the autonomous vehicle game, it’s time for New York’s state and city governments to plan for it.

Here in New York City, we have a streetscape unrivaled in the country for its complexity – with private vehicles, taxis, bikes, buses, pedestrians and trucks all jockeying for space. Will a computer be able to safely and efficiently navigate our city?

We won’t know whether this technology works here – and what it can do for us – until we’re able to test it here. And until we change the law, we can’t benefit from this growing industry and the jobs it’s creating, either.

The first step on both fronts is to revise the state law that’s in the way. Rochester-area state Sen. Joseph Robach and Assemblyman David Gantt have already sponsored bills to make the necessary changes, and I urge New York City’s delegation in Albany to work with them to pass this or similar legislation.

Government isn’t just about managing what’s happening today – it’s also about planning for what’s coming tomorrow.

Gale A. Brewer is the Manhattan Borough President, and was the founding chair of the New York City Council’s Committee on Technology.

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