Will Self-Driving Cars Ruin New York?

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The self-driving car, once only a futuristic, science-fiction vision for the future, is now finally here. It is being test driven and has the backing of the federal government, and will coming soon to a neighborhood street near you.

Currently being test-driven in cities across the USA, having collectively undergone millions of miles of successful road-tests, it is only a matter of time before road-testing begins in New York City.

And when it does, will the Big Apple be ready to embrace the changes that it will bring? Will NYC be ready to address all of the economic, legal, and regulatory hurdles that will inevitably be brought to the table?

Why The World Needs Autonomous Vehicles

Over 30,000 people die from traffic accidents in the USA each year. The vast majority of them are due to human error, such as lapses in judgment, visual impairment, physiological or emotional impairment, or distractions. Autonomous vehicles, controlled by artificial intelligence, which are obviously not subject to any of these human conditions, can substantially reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on the road.

Traffic congestion is another major concern. If autonomous vehicles take over the roads, then they will be able to leverage their computing ability to automatically calculate the best detours and routes, be able to space out their vehicles on the road, and travel at optimal speeds to reduce congestion.

The Challenges Of Safety Regulation

There are a number of regulatory concerns that need to be addressed before autonomous vehicles become street legal in NYC. While the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) has already issued its approval for autonomous vehicles and has begun working on setting forth guidelines and regulations governing their operation, nothing has been done to address the specific needs of NYC. Operating a vehicle in NYC is very different than operating it in the rural countryside.

First and foremost, there is a general movement to reduce the dependency on vehicular traffic in NYC, since its inhabitants rely predominantly pedestrian and public-transportation. Could the introduction of autonomous vehicles undermine this push? Or could it actually reduce the demand for car ownership? That remains to be seen.

Secondly, will autonomous vehicles be able to reduce traffic congestion or help to alleviate it?

Some of the regulatory concerns that need to be addressed include:

Speed Regulations: Should autonomous vehicles operate at slower speeds than human-driven vehicles?

Right Of Way: What are the rules concerning yielding the right of way, should a conflict arise between autonomous and human-driven vehicles on the road?

Positive Control Of Vehicle 

NYC has a law that requires one hand to be on the steering wheel at all times, while a vehicle is in motion. How does this impact the use of an autonomous vehicle that does not even have a steering wheel? According to CNN, Google has unveiled a prototype of its self-driving car that does not include any human controls, such as a steering wheel, breaks, or even a rear-view mirror, since these functions are carried out internally by Google’s computer and its use of LIDAR technology. Will this be problematic in the event a human needs to take over manual control of the vehicle?

Who Is At Fault In An Accident?

If an autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident, who would be at fault? CNET says that he answer to this question is complicated by the fact that the NHTSA has issued a ruling that Google’s self-driving car is it’s own driver.

The Problem Of “Ghost-Vehicles” 

If a driverless car can drive without human intervention, then can it operate with nobody inside it? This poses an interesting legal question. A vehicle owner could send their empty car to pick up another passenger. Or an autonomous taxi could drive without the need for a driver to be present. Or a truck driver can drive for thousands of miles across long stretches of highway without the need for a driver to accompany it. Will this be legal? Will this be safe?

“NYC will miss chance to lead on autonomous cars if our laws do not even allow us to test them on city streets in a safe and controlled way,” NYC councilman Dan Garodnick tweeted.

Economic Impact

With the introduction of autonomous vehicles, what will this mean for the city’s 150,000 taxi drivers and delivery couriers? “This is gonna be a fight regarding jobs,” says Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “For us that want to be supportive of this movement, you’re going to have to have a response to that.”

There is serious potential for autonomous vehicles to adversely affect the city’s parking revenues. Why would vehicle owners park their vehicles, when they could just program them to return back home, only to summon them to return back to pick them up later, or to even have them just wander around the city until you are ready to be picked up again? According to Comptroller.nyc.gov, NYC Parking fine revenues amounted to $565 million in 2015.

How the ownership and operation of autonomous vehicles will impact automobile insurance coverage rates in New York remains to be seen. How would an insurance underwriter be able to establish whether an accident occurred due to vehicular error versus human error? Who would be liable in the event of a vehicular error, the owner of the vehicle or the manufacturer?

“This is going to be a disruptive technology for the insurance industry,” says Hillary Rowen, a lawyer with Segdwick LLP, based out of San Francisco.

Courtesy TheTopTier Digital Media

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