In the wake of the first pedestrian fatality caused by a “self-driving” car, New York renewed its autonomous driving program this month. The program will operate under the strict limits set by Gov. Cuomo a year ago and will last until April 2019, when government officials will re-examine the program and its effectiveness. The measured approach favored by New York contrasts with many states in the western part of the United States, including California and Arizona, which have provided car manufacturers more unfettered access to their roadways.
New York’s history with autonomous vehicles has been relatively brief. After quickly securing a permit last year to test its technology, Audi became the first automobile manufacturer to test a self-driving car in New York. The drive only lasted 6.1 miles, though and Audi has not performed any other test drives in the Empire State since its initial run. Cruise Automation was the only other company granted a permit to test drive the futuristic vehicles, but apparently never utilized the permit.
According to the car industry, the reasons boil down to the heavy-handed regulations passed down by Albany. While California appears to be on the verge of allowing self-driving cars without a human driver in the vehicle, New York requires both a human driver and police escort for all trips within the state. Further, all routes must be submitted in advance and approved by government regulators. For Cruise Automation, the company was only allowed to drive a car in lower Manhattan if it opened an office in the city and hired a certain number of employees in the state, apparently the reason the company never used its self-driving permit.
The futuristic endeavor, hailed by optimistic technologists, has come under significant scrutiny in the past two months. After a self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona last month, the technology’s forward momentum appears to have slowed. Uber, the company responsible for the vehicle in the pedestrian accident, has withdrawn its permit in California. General Motors, another aggressive purveyor of self-driving cars, admitted one of its vehicles failed to yield to a pedestrian in a marked crosswalk several months ago in San Francisco. Tesla, the electric car manufacturer with the most advanced and widely used self-driving technology, also came under fire in the last year when one of its vehicles drove directly underneath an eighteen-wheeler, killing the driver.
Despite these mishaps, it appears self-driving cars will be in New York at some point in the future. Admitting the technology will never be perfect, advocates say the hundreds of lives killed by these vehicles will far outnumber the thousands saved each year by common human errors. Until the technology delivers on this promise, Gov. Cuomo’s cautioned welcome of their technology may be a wise decision.