New York City welcomes robotaxis — but only with safety drivers

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

As cities like San Francisco continue to grapple with the problems posed by fully driverless for-hire vehicles, New York City is trying to get ahead of the problem by outlining what it calls “a rigorous permitting program” that it claims will ensure applicants are “ready to test their technology in the country’s most challenging urban environment safely and proficiently.”

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

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

The requirements would exclude companies without previous autonomous vehicle testing experience in other cities. Applicants would need to submit information from previous tests, including details on any crashes that occurred and how often safety drivers have to take control of the vehicle (also known in California as “disengagements). And in what is sure to be the most controversial provision, fully driverless vehicles won’t be permitted to test on the city’s public roads; only vehicles with safety drivers will be allowed.

A small handful of companies, including Waymo and Cruise, have deployed driverless vehicles, also known as Level 4 automation — but issues around traffic obstruction and safety have stymied their rollout.

Last October, a driverless Cruise vehicle dragged a pedestrian over 20 feet to the curb on a street in San Francisco, spurring regulators to suspend the company’s operations permit. Several months later, a driverless Waymo vehicle struck a bicyclist, causing minor injuries. City officials in San Francisco have criticized both companies for blocking roads and obstructing buses and emergency vehicles.

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

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

Naturally, autonomous vehicles would be required to follow all traffic laws and curb regulations. Likewise, companies would need to submit “assurance protocols for how the operator will compensate for any AV system limitation or failure and proactively intervene to avoid 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 requests from applicants to withhold certain data from disclosure on the basis of 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 the state’s strict rules, which include mandating that safety drivers keep their hands on the wheel at all times. The state law originally required a police escort, but a renewal of the law several years ago removed that language.

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 couple of vehicles in the city. And Waymo said it would bring its manually driven vehicles for mapping purposes.

Automakers and tech companies testing AVs tend to flock to states with friendlier regulations (like Arizona and Texas) or places that are more convenient to their headquarters (like California). New York is neither, but it does represent one of the biggest taxi markets in the world — and therefore is a ripe target for robotaxi companies.


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