Each year, there are nearly 6 million car accidents across the nation. In New York State alone, more than 1,000 people died each year between 2012 and 2014 as a result of motor vehicle accidents. And in a notoriously congested and busy city like the Big Apple, road crashes can have serious consequences. Self-driving cars have held possibility for making streets safer, but will they be welcomed in New York City? GM is about to find out, as they’ll be testing their autonomous vehicles in NYC starting as early as 2018.
Proponents of autonomous vehicles feel that taking human drivers out of the equation could make roads significantly safer, and their reasoning is quite sound. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the vast majority of car accidents can be attributed to human error. Whether due to traveling at unsafe speeds, distracted or intoxicated driving, or pure errors in judgment, approximately 94% of car accidents that took place between 2005 and 2007 nationally were due to driver-related mistakes, rather than vehicle problems or environmental factors. And in 2016, there were 37,000 deaths nationwide due to motor vehicle crashes. Whether you can picture yourself letting a robot transport you around or not, most people can see the potential in the technology.
That’s why GM plans to bring their self-driving cars to New York City streets sooner rather than later. Back in May, Governor Cuomo announced a self-driving pilot program for public roads that would last for one year. Previously, the opportunities for autonomous vehicle testing in NYC were slim, partially due to a New York State regulation that requires all drivers to keep at least one hand on their steering wheel at all times. Now, GM’s self-driving branch, Cruise Automation, has announced that after months of conversations with the governor’s office, they’re on track to receive approval and will begin autonomous vehicle testing soon after the new year.
It won’t be easy, though. New York’s streets are filled with aggressive motorists and pedestrians who break the rules of the road on a near-constant basis. Bart Selman, an A.I. expert at Cornell University, told Wired, “This could become a problem with pedestrians ‘bullying’ self-driving cars. Self-driving cars behave conservatively, and follow all the rules, so there is a problem when humans push them and bend the rules.” In a city like New York, where jaywalking is the unofficial rule rather than the exception and drivers take significant risks at every turn, the situation could quickly become a robot vs. human battle.
But even if pedestrians do take advantage of the self-driving cars that will automatically stop for them, the life-saving potential of GM’s autonomous vehicles will likely outweigh those concerns. Plus, these cars could make the city a lot more pleasant for residents.
A New York magazine essay from 2016 summed up how self-driving cars could make a cultural impact, as well: “…Each year, driverless cars have the potential to save millions of lives. Fewer accidents means fewer traffic jams, and less traffic means less pollution.”
If self-driving cars can do all that, New Yorkers might want to remain open to the possibility of change — for the better — in their city.