New York City welcomes robotaxis – but only with safety drivers

New York City has announced a new licensing system for companies interested in testing autonomous vehicles on its roads, including a requirement that a driver be behind the wheel at all times for human safety.

As cities like San Francisco continue to grapple with the problems posed by fully self-driving rental vehicles, New York City is trying to get ahead of the problem by outlining a so-called “rigorous licensing program,” which it claims will ensure applicants are “ready to to safely and expertly test their technology in the country’s most challenging urban environment.”

“This technology is coming whether we like it or not,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a statement The edge“so we’re going to make sure we get it right.”

“This technology is coming whether we like it or not”

The requirements would exclude companies without previous experience testing autonomous vehicles in other cities. Applicants must provide information from previous testing, including details of any accidents that have occurred and how often safety drivers are required to take control of the vehicle (known as “disengagements” in California). And in what will surely be the most controversial provision, fully self-driving vehicles will no longer be allowed to test on the city’s public roads; only vehicles with safety drivers are allowed.

A small handful of companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have deployed self-driving vehicles, also known as Level 4 automation, but issues around traffic congestion and safety have hampered their rollout.

Last October, a driverless cruise vehicle dragged a pedestrian more than 20 feet to the curb of a San Francisco street, prompting regulators to suspend the company’s business license. Several months later, a driverless Waymo vehicle struck a cyclist, causing minor injuries. City officials in San Francisco have criticized both companies for blocking roads and impeding buses and emergency vehicles.

New York City hopes to avoid similar problems by requiring companies to keep safety drivers in vehicles at all times. Under Adams’ proposal, companies would still have to obtain a permit from the state Department of Motor Vehicles. In addition, applicants would be required to provide details on how their safety drivers will be hired and trained and “affirm that they will follow recent best practices from the Society of Automotive Engineers.”

New York City hopes to avoid similar problems by requiring companies to keep safety drivers in vehicles at all times

Of course, autonomous vehicles would be required to follow all traffic laws and curb rules. Similarly, companies should “submit insurance protocols on how the operator will compensate for any limitations or malfunctions of the AV system and proactively intervene to prevent potential crashes.”

Data from AV testing will eventually be available on the city’s Open Data portal, a spokesperson said. As part of the application process, the city’s Department of Transportation will review applicants’ requests not to disclose certain information based on confidentiality.

While other states have become hotbeds for AV testing, New York has been a bit of a ghost town. Part of the reason could be strict state regulations, including requiring safety drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times. State law originally required a police escort, but a renewal of the law several years ago made that language redundant.

In 2017, Cruise announced plans to test its self-driving vehicles in Lower Manhattan, but those plans were later scuttled with little explanation as to why. Boston-based Optimus Ride tested autonomous shuttles in Brooklyn, but only on private roads as part of the borough’s Navy Yard. Mobileye, a division of Intel, also tested a number of vehicles in the city. And Waymo said it would include its manually operated vehicles for mapping purposes.

Automakers and tech companies testing AVs often gravitate to states with friendlier regulations (like Arizona and Texas) or to places that are more convenient to their headquarters (like California). New York isn’t either, but it does represent one of the largest taxi markets in the world – and is therefore a ripe target for robotaxi companies.

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