New York State and the Self Driving Car

by William Mattar | November 10th, 2017

Governor Cuomo recently announced that, during a year-long pilot program, New York will allow testing of autonomous driving technology.

Under the program, if the application of a manufacturer of “autonomous vehicle technology” — which queries “date and time”; “origin and destination”; “sequence of roads . . .”; and “total routing distance in miles to the nearest 1/10 mile” – is approved, the company can test drive autonomous vehicles on New York roadways.

The timeframe is narrow: The law will expire on April 1, 2018. According to a press release from the Governor, companies must submit a report on demonstrations or tests no later than March 1, 2018.

So far Audi, which “snagged [a] license” and is “testing near Albany,” is the first – and only – manufacturer to avail itself to the program. But is New York doing enough to spur development of autonomous technology?

A recent article in the Buffalo News, entitled New York law requiring hand on wheel stymies pace of self-driving cars, thinks not. According to the author, the Empire State’s “slower pace” with regard to self-driving cars could put it “at a disadvantage in the years ahead, whether for manufacturing and research opportunities or where self-driving cars and trucks get marketed.”

The culprit? A half-century-old Vehicle & Traffic Law mandating that one hand always be on the steering wheel of a moving vehicle. The author estimates that the “one hand” steering mandate may prove maladaptive in an age of autonomy:

Here’s the big roadblock in New York: This is the only state that requires drivers to have at least one hand on the steering mechanism of any moving vehicle. Left unchanged, the law sends a chilling message to the auto industry, executives say.

In 1967, one year after the landmark federal traffic and motor vehicle safety act, two upstate Republicans — state Sen. Dalwin Niles and Assemblyman Joseph Finley — pushed the “one hand” steering mandate. It was an “obvious safety requirement,” the state’s motor vehicle commissioner wrote.

Fifty years later, that well-intended law is seen as a hindrance to the range of self-driving vehicles expected to be on the market in the coming years. Auto executives say it is a legal and symbolic obstacle to even some basic advances, such as self-parking features already on the market. . . .

The law is Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1226, which reads as follows:

Control of steering mechanism. No person shall operate a motor vehicle without having at least one hand or, in the case of a physically handicapped person, at least  one  prosthetic  device  or  aid on the steering mechanism at all times when the motor vehicle is in motion.

This “one-hand” law was an “obvious safety requirement” at time of passage, but is now “antiquated,” according to some commentators.  And at least some (but not all) legislators.

In May, Senate Bill S7879, “An act to amend the vehicle and traffic law, in relation to control of steering mechanism,” was introduced and referred to the Committee on Insurance. If passed, the new law would amend VTL § 1226 to provide an exception when “driving technology is engaged to perform the steering function.”

A recent article published in the New York Daily News sets the scene:

“We are just trying to have the law match up to the technology that people are using today and I think is only going to grow down the road,” said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Robach (R-Monroe County).

. . .

“Show me how it is going to work at Second Ave. and 60th St. at rush hour and then I might support legislative change for driverless cars,” said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan).

With the rollout of self-driving cars, there will certainly be tension between the old and new as the dual interests of public safety and innovation collide. Stay tuned as our blog follows these important developments.