The self-driving car, it seems, is inevitable. Maybe not tomorrow, or next year, but sooner rather than later. At Friday’s City Council hearing on autonomous vehicles, a key question emerged: Will the Big Apple merely be Silicon Valley’s most complex proving ground for its #disruptive technology, or will urban policy makers be able to shape how self-driving cars impact pedestrian-dense, transit-rich cities like New York?
“New York City must be ready to embrace a future that is all but imminent,” transportation committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez said before asking a panel of autonomous vehicle industry representatives how their technology will impact the city’s goals of reducing car use and congestion.
“Mr. Chairman, that really is the $64,000 question,” said David Strickland of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying and advocacy outfit backed by Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo. “Car ownership could change in America, but quite frankly, we don’t know that yet.”
So far, the outlook for cities looking to reduce car dependency is not good.
Before he became a lobbyist for tech firms and carmakers, Strickland — who also serves as a lobbyist at Venable, LLP with major auto industry clients—was the nation’s top auto safety regulator, leading the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for four years.
Last month, NHTSA released its policy on autonomous vehicles. Critics, including New York City’s Department of Transportation, say it doesn’t pay much attention to cities, an enormous blind spot in federal transportation policy.
“If you read the NHTSA guidance that was put out, there’s virtually no mention of cities as having any separate and distinct concerns in [autonomous vehicle] regulation,” DOT Deputy Commissioner for Policy Michael Replogle told the Voice. “You know, it’s vastly different to make a rule about how trucks operate on interstate highways than how you operate in Soho.”
“So we’re quite concerned that city concerns need to be properly represented in the policymaking process, not just states,” he said. DOT will be submitting comments to NHTSA, which are due by November 22, and is working with the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which is raising similar concerns.
For their part, industry representatives trumpeted the potential safety benefits of self-driving vehicles, and the possibility that they will reduce demand for car ownership and parking. But they were mostly focused on removing barriers to testing their products in New York. Strickland urged the city to support repeal of a state law requiring drivers to have one hand on the wheel at all times, an impediment to testing self-driving cars in New York City.
Replogle urged the committee to be cautious about modifying regulations that would turn New York City into a proving ground until the city had more of a say over policy development. For example, he said, there could be a role for speed governors to regulate how fast vehicles travel in areas with pedestrians and cyclists, and there should be more discussion of how automation will affect the city’s 150,000 taxi and livery drivers.
“This is gonna be a fight regarding jobs,” Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who was generally bullish on the potential of self-driving technology, told the panel of industry representatives. “For us that want to be supportive of this movement, you’re going to have to have a response to that.”
Rodriguez said he will look to convene a working group with the City Council, city agencies, and industry representatives to chart a course for autonomous vehicle policy in New York.
“It’s a matter of time,” he said.