Autonomous Autos: Experts say driverless cars could turn Manhattan into gridlock hell and ‘jaywalking paradise’

Photo by Jackson Chen Audi’s A7 driverless prototype parked outside the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building on Sept. 27.

Photo by Jackson Chen
Audi’s A7 driverless prototype parked outside the David N. Dinkins Municipal Building on Sept. 27.

BY JACKSON CHEN

As driverless vehicles steadily cruise from science fiction into reality, the borough president facing the city’s thorniest congestion challenges wants New Yorkers to start thinking seriously about the monumental change that is surely coming.

During a panel discussion on driverless vehicles hosted by Borough President Gale Brewer on Sept. 27, panelists raised concerns about unintended consequences ranging from higher obesity from easy vehicle access tempting people off their bicycles, to pedestrian safeguards bringing city traffic to a standstill.

“Once our pedestrians realize these cars are programmed to stop when they cross the streets, there will be a jaywalking paradise and these cars will never get anywhere,” warned Sarah Kaufman, the assistant director for technology programming at the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation, noting that most autonomous vehicles are programmed to not come within three feet of pedestrians.

Brewer convened the panel last week to educate everyday New Yorkers, as well as learn more herself, about the possible impacts autonomous vehicle technology would have on Manhattan’s infrastructure, labor force, and traffic regulations — because, she said, the questions surrounding autonomous vehicles don’t start with “if” anymore, but with “how” and “when.”

A panelist from Audi said that the German car manufacturer is roughly two years away from bringing to market a vehicle that can drive autonomously on interstate highways in traffic moving at 25 miles per hour.

Other major players in the nascent field are also road-testing autonomous vehicle technology across the country.

Electric car manufacturer Tesla’s autopilot model has been tested on highways, ridesharing app pioneer Uber is operating its own fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, and tech giant Google is set to get the regulatory greenlight in California for its autonomous prototypes to hit the streets without a person at the wheel.

On September 19, the US Department of Transportation released guidelines — including a 15-point set of safety standards and regulations that it urged states to refine to meet specific traffic conditions in their localities — that broadly embraced the advent of self-driving cars.

Even as Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs, admitted that being able to drive hands-free in a traffic jam isn’t “that exciting,” he said the widespread progress of the technology has grabbed the public’s attention and is driving a conversation on how autonomous vehicles will share the road with conventional automobiles and pedestrians.

“One of the points we want to make with this is it’s essential to get consumers and drivers to understand what the technology is and not be afraid of it,” Stertz said.

Photo by Jackson Chen All that junk in the trunk allows the Audi A7 to drive by itself at speeds up to 25 mph.

Photo by Jackson Chen
All that junk in the trunk allows the Audi A7 to drive by itself at speeds up to 25 mph.

For Brewer’s panel, a prototype of an Audi A7 capable of driving on freeways by itself was parked outside the David Dinkins Municipal Building Downtown. The A7 prototype was developed in 2012, according to Spencer Matthews, the industry and government relations analyst for Volkswagen Group, Audi’s parent company. The vehicle, he explained, is equipped with about 20 different sensors that allow it to react in milliseconds — much faster than any human ever could.

But while the A7 could drive autonomously on freeways, the congested streets of Manhattan present unique physical challenges — and raise legal questions, as well. The city’s Department of Transportation began seriously looking into the issue of autonomous vehicles roughly a year ago, and the agency now wants to join that to the national discussion of how to move forward.

“The ultimate test for autonomous vehicles will be whether or not they can effectively navigate cities like New York,” Will Carry, the DOT’s senior director for special projects, said. “So we really feel like we should be partners in [the national] discussion.”

For several of the panelists, Manhattan serves as a unique stress test for the new vehicles because of the obstacles its clogged street grid provides, with cars in transit joined by a glut of pedestrians, increasing numbers of bicyclists, and, of course, the ubiquitous double-parked cars.

Sam Schwartz, the city’s traffic commissioner in the 1980s and now a respected transportation engineering consultant and transit columnist, said that autonomous vehicles could also encourage more people to use cars and reverse the recent healthy trend in people walking and cycling to their to destinations.

“Inactivity kills four or five times more people than car crashes kill,” Schwartz said. “Even if autonomous vehicles knock down the number of people killed in car crashes, which I have no doubt they will, if we have less activity we may kill more people through inactivity.”

Kaufman also said that driverless cars could lead more residents beginning to move farther out from the city’s center because of the increased ease of commuting on highways.

One of the biggest concerns raised by driverless cars are about the many jobs they would impact, such as driving taxis, short-haul delivery vehicles, and long-haul trucks.

Jeff Garber, the director of technology and innovation for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, emphasized there is still time for those industries to adjust since he expects the rollout of autonomous vehicles to be a slow transition.

“We’re going to have to be adaptable to how this technology looks,” Garber said. “We’re kind of putting the cart before the horse a little bit because we’re not quite sure how it’s going to come. But I do think we have a little more time, it’s not going to be a catastrophic dropping of all the drivers.”

Audi’s Stertz said there could even be new job opportunities to supplement the use of driverless cars. The Audi rep said there are possibilities for traffic management positions to help autonomous vehicles deal with unique situations that arise.

“Until the time when cars truly can outthink us, there’s going to need to be some human management of the fleets that are out there,” Stertz said of the technology’s impact on the labor force.

Schwartz, however, predicted that self-driving cars could take over current driver-focused industries in as few as 20 years, which he said represents rapid change in the grand scheme of a city as complex as New York.

“Twenty years to change a workforce is very fast,” he said. “You’re going to have people that are 30-years-olds that are now truck drivers and they’ll be 50-years-olds. What do you do with them when there’s no more truck drivers?”

The best solution, according to Schwartz, would be to assimilate self-driving cars slowly into the current transportation infrastructure, with legislation preventing the abrupt domination by autonomous vehicles.

Everyone on Brewer’s panel agreed that it’s time to start talking how to regulate the new technology.

“The tech is old and the opportunity is here, so it’s time for policy and culture to catch up to the technology that’s enabling self-driving cars,” said James Felton Keith, a member of the public who checked out the A7 prototype out front. “In these cities, as population becomes more and more dense, technologies that keep us out of each other’s way are going to be increasingly important.”

Photo by Jackson Chen Borough President Gale Brewer, at podium, introduces a panel on driverless vehicles that included, from left, Audi’s Brad Stertz, Sarah Kaufman from the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, Taxi and Limousine Commission’s Jeff Garber, Will Carry from the city’s Department of Transportation, as well as the panel moderator, Recode.net’s senior transportation editor Johana Bhuiyan, at right.

Photo by Jackson Chen
Borough President Gale Brewer, at podium, introduces a panel on driverless vehicles that included, from left, Audi’s Brad Stertz, Sarah Kaufman from the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, Taxi and Limousine Commission’s Jeff Garber, Will Carry from the city’s Department of Transportation, as well as the panel moderator, Recode.net’s senior transportation editor Johana Bhuiyan, at right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *