Driverless cars are coming, but will city drive them crazy?

Audi’s A7 driverless prototype parked outside the Municipal Building during Borough President Gale Brewer’s panel discussion on autonomously driving vehicles. The car’s “brain,” looking like some clunky old stereo equipment from the 1970s, is in the trunk. But with new technology, this hardware is soon set to get much smaller.  Photo by Jackson Chen

Audi’s A7 driverless prototype parked outside the Municipal Building during Borough President Gale Brewer’s panel discussion on autonomously driving vehicles. The car’s “brain,” looking like some clunky old stereo equipment from the 1970s, is in the trunk. But with new technology, this hardware is soon set to get much smaller. Photo by Jackson Chen

BY JACKSON CHEN | With driverless vehicles rapidly moving from sci-fi to reality, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer is out ahead of the curve, trying to get a better sense of how this new transportation mode will impact this most congested borough — and vice versa.

The tech-savvy B.P. is pushing discussion about the many gray areas raised by this major change that is surely coming.

During a recent panel talk Brewer hosted on driverless vehicles, a representative of Audi, the German car manufacturer, stated the company is roughly two years away from introducing a car that can drive autonomously on interstate highways up to 25 miles per hour.

Autonomous vehicle technology is also being tested throughout the country by other major players. The popular ride-sharing app Uber is now experimenting with a self-driving fleet of cars in Pittsburgh. Google’s self-driving car project is underway in California. And Tesla’s autopilot model has been tested on highways.

For Brewer’s panel, held in the Municipal Building on Centre St., a prototype version of a next-generation Audi A7 fully capable of driving on freeways by itself sat parked outside.

Brad Stertz, Audi’s director of government affairs, acknowledged that being able to drive hands-free in a traffic jam isn’t “that exciting.” But he said that the widespread progress on development of prototypes has grabbed the American public’s attention and is driving the conversation.

On Sept. 19, the U.S. Department of Transportation released guidelines that broadly embraced the advent of self-driving cars. These included a 15-point set of safety standards and regulations that U.S. D.O.T. urged states to refine to meet their specific traffic conditions.

“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.

At Brewer’s panel, the A7 prototype dazzled those who got the chance to sit in its front seat while it was parked. The car 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 can absorb external information and translate it into an action within milliseconds — much faster than a human could. While the A7 is ready to drive autonomously on freeways, the frequently congested streets of Manhattan present unique challenges — and raise legal questions, as well.

With Audi’s technology parked right outside, Brewer said the questions surrounding autonomous vehicles don’t start with “if” anymore, but with “how” and “when.”

The borough president said she is eager to learn more about it herself. Yet, she added, there’s a need to educate everyday New Yorkers about the possible impacts the technology would have on Manhattan’s infrastructure, its labor force and its traffic regulations. Industry experts are needed to inform that discussion, she said.

At the city’s Department of Transportation, the internal conversation began roughly a year ago. The agency now wants to join the national discussion on how best 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 city D.O.T.’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, this borough serves as a unique stress test for the new vehicles because of the obstacles Manhattan’s clogged street grid provides: Namely, there are so many cars in transit, joined by a swarms of pedestrians, increasing numbers of cyclists and, of course, the ubiquitous double-parked cars.

Experts raised a variety of concerns — some of which were contradictory, a sign of just how much is still unknown at this stage.

Sarah Kaufman, the assistant director for technology programming at the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation, explained that most autonomous vehicles are programmed not to come within 3 feet of pedestrians.

“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,” she warned. She predicted this would be a problem “pretty much anywhere in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.”

She added that driverless cars could result in unanticipated consequences, like residents beginning to move farther out from the city’s center because of the ease of commuting on highways.

Sam Schwartz, the city’s traffic commissioner in the 1980s and a widely respected transportation engineering consultant, said autonomous vehicles could also encourage more people to use cars and reverse the recent healthy trend of 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.”

One of the biggest concerns about driverless cars is how they would impact professional drivers — of 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 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 out there,” he said noted.

Schwartz, however, predicted self-driving cars could take over current driver-dependent industries in as soon 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-year-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, the transportation guru said, would be to bring 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 took the A7 prototype for a stationary spin. “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.”

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