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As Self-Driving Cars Begin Testing in New York City, a Transportation Expert Weighs in on Its Autonomous Future

“The whole science of the autonomous vehicle is predicting the unpredictable,” says Sam Schwartz, a former chief engineer for the New York City Department of Transportation, author of No One at the Wheel: Driverless Cars and the Road of the Future, and one-time yellow cab driver. Predicting unpredictability is challenging enough in a mid-sized city with relatively stable traffic patterns. It’s off-the-charts hard in a teeming megatropolis like New York City.  Schwartz recently spoke with Ground Truth columnist Alex Roy about this very topic, during an episode of the No Parking Podcast.

The chaos of New York’s streets—the most congested in the nation according to a recent study out of Texas A&M—is just one of the reasons why most self-driving companies have stayed away from testing in the city, even as they expand to many other metropolitan areas around the country. (There are also unique regulatory hurdles that are particular to New York.) But there was a new development last month, when Mobileye, part of Intel, announced that it was testing an autonomous vehicle on the city’s streets. 

To understand the nuances of autonomous driving in the Big Apple, we asked Schwartz to describe what distinguishes New York, and whether he believes self-driving vehicles have secured their place in the city’s transportation future. 

JS: Given all of these chaotic conditions, isn’t there an opportunity for autonomous vehicles to offer a different way, a safer way to get around New York, like the ride-hail fleets that are being commercialized in other cities?

SS: I’d say in the lower-density areas, where you’re going from location A to B to C and it’s not very complicated pedestrian areas, that’s the opportunity. For example, at airports, where you may be able to have autonomous vehicles shuttle people back and forth on protected rights of way to, say, the rental car location or parking locations or places like that.

Remember, we’re in the northeast, so we get snow, and it gets dark, and our lane lines aren’t painted very well, and people work in the streets—it’s not easy. That’s why I would say, set routes are the best places [for autonomous vehicles]. Dedicated rights of way, like at airports or between a couple of buildings a mile apart on a campus, like say Columbia University. You might be able to do shuttles in situations like that, you know, before 2025. That’s absolutely doable.

JS: You’ve been driving in New York for a long time—you were even a cab driver back in the 1960s. Has it gotten harder to navigate the city’s streets?

SS: It’s more aggressive now than I’ve ever seen. And I was a pretty aggressive driver!

There are just so many different vehicles moving at different speeds with different profiles, with different abilities to brake, different radii that they can achieve, and with a big percentage of [road users], like people on bicycles and scooters and e-bikes and segways and hovercraft, deciding not to obey the conventional traffic laws, such as stopping at red signals or riding on sidewalks.

JS: What’s your suggestion for improving accessibility and transportation equity in a city like New York? 

SS:  I think we need, call them jitneys, for low-income people who are only served by public transportation. Some of the lower-density areas, that should be the absolute focus. The industry should focus on where it could augment transit, where it could take care of the last mile in the suburbs and get people to the train or bus lines. Those types of things could work.

I imagine for the same price as sending out those big, heavy buses [to Long Island], you could send out three microbuses, autonomous vehicles that could use an algorithm. And that’s where I would start. In some low-income communities where we’re already spending a lot of money for a lousy service.

***

While the jury may be out on whether New Yorkers will eventually welcome self-driving vehicles to the city’s transit mix, the testing alone is sure to attract a lot of attention. But it’s clear that to make it there, AVs will have to have a New York frame of mind.

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