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How Do You Know The Car Next To You Is Being Driven By A Human?

Dashed Arrow JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

"Autonomous vehicles have the potential to save time and save lives," Governor Andrew Cuomo said way back in 2017, heralding the passage of a law that allowed self-driving cars to be tested in New York. As of today, only two car companies—Audi and Cadillac—have gotten the state's permission to test their concepts on New York's streets. Meanwhile, the real action is on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens, where that sleek Tesla next to you might be piloted by a computer system.

This past Friday, Dr. Camilo Ortiz, a clinical psychologist, tweeted this video of his Tesla being driven all by itself, in the rain, on the Grand Central Parkway.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk was impressed by the demo of his company's new $5,000 software upgrade of its Navigate on Autopilot feature, which allows the car to change lanes without driver confirmation.

"This feature does not make a car autonomous, and lane changes will only be made when a driver’s hands are detected on the wheel," the company states in a blog post. "As has always been the case, until truly driverless cars are validated and approved by regulators, drivers are responsible for and must remain in control of their car at all times."

New York law states that all drivers not part of an approved testing program must keep both hands on the wheel. "There is no testing currently underway on public roadways in New York," a DMV spokesperson told Gothamist.

"To be clear, I'm always holding on to the steering wheel. I just didn't momentarily to take the shot on the twitter video," Dr. Ortiz wrote in a message, adding that he uses autopilot every day when he drives to work. "I drove all the side streets but once I got on the LIE, it did the rest until it was time to get off the Grand Central."

Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, who opposed efforts to overturn New York's 1971 law on hands-free driving, called the video "pretty terrifying."

"The concept that people just think, oh, supposedly my car does this so I'll just give it a shot, is so high risk. And who's liable? It would be the driver's liability," Krueger said.

The NYPD says they ticketed 57 drivers in 2018 for the offense, and 7 in 2019 so far.

Tesla says they collect data on how their drivers operate their vehicles, and while that may be a way into understanding how widely the feature is used, Krueger said she "doesn't picture a scenario where the company says, 'Sure you want us to turn over the records?'"

A Tesla rep pointed to the safeguards the software has.

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