New York’s governor signed legislation last week that paves the way for the testing of autonomous vehicles, a development trumpeted by state officials as an official welcome mat for the self-driving industry in a sought-after location. But manufacturers interested in testing on the state’s roads may find the process about as easy to navigate as crosstown traffic in Manhattan on a Friday afternoon.
The legislation does lift a key barrier that had previously prevented autonomous testing in New York, a requirement in the state’s traffic laws that drivers keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times. For the purposes of testing, that’s no longer a concern.
But the new law, tucked into the state’s 2018 fiscal budget signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, introduces new requirements that rank as some of the most onerous in the country for companies pursuing autonomous technology.
“While we are all familiar with the idea that self-driving cars will one day likely be commonplace, the reality is that there is a long road ahead before we get there.”
– Terri Egan, New York DMV
Although Cuomo’s office hailed as central to “making New York the epicenter of cutting-edge technology and innovation,” the legislation received a tepid response from a top representative of a prominent autonomous industry trade group.
“While we regret New York has only taken action to permit very limited testing, we look forward to working with state officials to facilitate greater real-world testing and deployment of this technology in the state,” says David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a group with members including Waymo, Uber, Ford, Lyft, and Volvo.
New York becomes the 13th state with laws on the books that authorize autonomous testing, according to records kept by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Three more permit testing through executive orders. The law arrives at a time when California and Michigan, two states the industry already calls home, are relaxing testing restrictions.
Among the requirements of New York’s new law:
In their permit applications to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, manufacturers must describe the purpose of their demonstration and specify the date and time it will take place. They must provide the sequence of roads they intend to travel and the total routing distance traveled, down to the nearest tenth of a mile. Testing is prohibited in school and work zones.
Every test must be supervised by the New York State Police and manufacturers must pay law enforcement for this service. Hourly rates for this service include regular pay of $92.73 per hour and an overtime rate of $131.67 per hour. For one example, state officials estimate that a 115-mile escort would, including mileage charges, cost manufacturers $680.94.
Further, safety drivers must be in autonomous vehicles, and that person must be capable of retaking control, which means effectively that New York won’t permit testing of vehicles that eschew traditional human controls such as brake pedals and steering wheels.
New York will require any companies that receive permits to file reports on their testing in the state. It’s not yet clear whether those reports must include information on disengagements, a requirement that has drawn still opposition in California. A spokesperson for the New York DMV says the reports must include information on, among other things, “the associated impacts on safety, traffic control, traffic enforcement and emergency services.”
Terri Egan, executive deputy commissioner of the state’s DMV, acknowledges New York is inching forward with its dalliance with autonomous vehicles rather than offering a full-hearted embrace.
“While we are all familiar with the idea that self-driving cars will one day likely be commonplace, the reality is that there is a long road ahead before we get there,” she said. “We need to make sure these vehicles are safely tested on our roads, while providing opportunities for the public to become familiar with this technology. This is a balanced approach consistent with New York’s long track record of highway safety as well as innovation.”
Manufacturers who do want to brave all the red tape will need to act quickly. The law is set to expire on April 1, 2018, giving prospective developers of pilot projects roughly 10 months to apply for permits, receive them, and conduct testing.
Despite the restrictions, we may see at least one major autonomous company stage a self-driving project. Demonstrating the ability to operate in New York City’s snarled traffic and highly complex urban environment would be a coup for any engineering team. After all, if they can make it there, they can make it anywhere.