Not everyone may think that the idea of self-driving cars is the best one ever to come down the pike (though given the habits of some Western New York drivers, it could hardly be worse), but they are coming fast and New York should make sure it is ahead of the curve. As it stands now, the state is decidedly behind.
That seems to be a habit in New York. The state was late to the game in allowing ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber to begin doing business here. It belatedly got on board this year and, while the delay mainly hurt those services and inconvenienced customers who would have used them, the failure to move more quickly on driverless cars could have long-term consequences for the state economy.
Consider. A Google spinoff in Arizona is looking to enroll hundreds of people for free rides in self-driving vehicles. In California, 36 companies – including big names such as Toyota, Uber and Ford – have been approved to test autonomous vehicles. Closer to home, workers in Ohio are laying fiber optic cables and sensors on a 35-mile stretch of road so driverless vehicles can someday communicate with each other.
That’s being ahead of the curve.
The best that New York has been able to do so far is to approve a one-year, limited test program on state roads. That concession occurred only a few months ago and with the testing window already one-third closed, only one company, Audi, has taken advantage of it, and even then only for an educational event for lawmakers outside the state Capitol.
The main source of the holdup in New York is a law that at one time surely made sense, but which plainly needs to be modified. In that 1967 measure, the Legislature enacted the “one hand” steering mandate, requiring drivers always to have at least one hand on the steering wheel. Who could argue?
It was a sensible law at the time, when few could have imagined the dawn of driverless cars. Today, it’s an obstacle to progress and, worse, it hinders the opportunity for New York to become a home to that development technology, just as Buffalo is about to become for solar power.
Specifically, auto executives say it is both a legal and symbolic obstacle to even some basic advances, such as self-parking features, which are already on the market. As those executives said, the law – the only one in the nation – sends a chilling message to the industry: Don’t bring those newfangled contraptions to this state.
It’s shortsighted. Other states are moving ahead, leaving New York in their fumes. They will be more likely to foster the research and produce the jobs that this technology will create in the future.
New York needs to change its law so that driver-operated vehicles continue to be safely operated while also making room for the future it now has trouble seeing.