In just a few months, autonomous vehicles will be added to the mixture of pedestrians, cars, cyclists, box trucks, party buses, MTA buses, unicyclists, delivery riders, slow walkers, and dog walkers currently cramming the streets of Lower Manhattan.
According to a press release from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, General Motors and Cruise Automation have applied to “begin the first sustained testing of vehicles in fully autonomous mode in New York State in early 2018.”
"Autonomous vehicles have the potential to save time and save lives, and we are proud to be working with GM and Cruise on the future of this exciting new technology," Governor Cuomo said in the release.
The cars will be tested in a five square mile radius in Lower Manhattan. The governor’s office says the testing area is still being determined, but that currently it only includes city streets, and not state-maintained freeways like the FDR Drive or the West Side Highway, where the speed limit is above 25 mph. Tuesday's announcement comes after the governor pledged earlier this year to add legislation to permit the testing.
Bart Selman, a professor of computer science at Cornell University who specializes in artificial intelligence, told us the testing is “a major development.”
“GM is realizing, car companies are realizing, that self-driving cars will become reality, and they either have to get into that business or they will disappear.”
The cars that will be tested are rated Level 4 on the Society of Automotive Engineers’ scale system for automated driving, one step below “full automation,” meaning they will still need a human being at the wheel. The governor’s office’s release states that all testing cars will have two—an engineer in the driver’s seat, and a second person in the passenger seat.
Selman says New York City is a relatively safe place to test them because of rapid developments in artificial intelligence and obstacle avoidance.
“If you’re driving at 30 or 35 mph, or at lower speeds, the cars will be able to react much faster than people. The vision system and the sensor systems, they are becoming almost superhuman, they can see around the car most of the time.”
The artificial intelligence is so good, Selman predicts that pedestrians and others sharing the road with autonomous vehicles will take advantage of it.
“One issue in New York will be that there’s nothing to prevent a pedestrian from stepping out in the road and causing the cars to brake,” Selman says. “I call it bullying of the self-driving cars.”
“A human driver, you can’t count on them stopping for a pedestrian stepping out in the road," he continued. "But a self-driving car will stop. In California, I hear some stories about people driving regular cars who know that self-driving cars won’t hit them, so they’ll cut in front of them—the cars are built to not hit anything.”
Selman suggested that the cars will be "great for cyclists."
"Where humans don’t see a cyclist when they're opening a car door, these cars will not do that, they will keep the door locked if they see a cyclist coming. I could see an environment where cycling will become much safer in Manhattan."
A representative from the City Department of Transportation declined to comment on the announcement.
Because the sensors necessary to power autonomous vehicles will be prohibitively expensive (though perhaps not for many New Yorkers), Selman envisions a future in which “companies like GM will become an Uber, where people will call up cars to share.”
"I see sort of a change in the whole way people will commute."
[UPDATE / 1:40 p.m.] Because nothing can go untainted by the squabbling between Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, a spokesperson for de Blasio told a reporter for the Times that the City wasn't consulted on the testing.
— J. David Goodman (@jdavidgoodman) October 17, 2017
A spokesman for Cuomo disputed that assertion.
Not true. City was alerted months ago and was alerted again before the announcement was made.
— Rich Azzopardi (@RichAzzopardi) October 17, 2017
Eric Phillips, the mayoral spokesman, tells us in an email, "We want to make sure the right safety protocols are in place. We haven’t seen any details on the idea, so we have obvious concerns that need to be addressed."
Asked if anyone from the state or the governor's office told anyone at the DOT or City Hall about the announcement, Phillips replied, "They called us to give us a heads up, with no details, last night."
The governor's office counters that the conversations between the state in the city on the subject began in August.
“The city was first alerted to this proposal two months ago before GM started preliminary mapping. They were notified again before the announcement of plans for testing next year was made," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi writes in an email. "Now starts the permitting process with DMV and I’m sure whatever concerns the city may have will be addressed.”
A DOT spokesperson sent us this statement on Tuesday evening:
There was no notification to DOT until last night on the timing, details or testing area of a pilot. In general, the outreach to DOT overall does not even qualify as consulting the agency that oversees 6,000 miles of streets.