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NY's Slow Pace on Autonomous Vehicle Legislation Could Put It at a Disadvantage in Years Ahead

New York is the only state that requires drivers to have at least one hand on the steering mechanism of any moving vehicle.

(TNS) -- ALBANY — In Arizona, Google’s spinoff company is looking to enroll hundreds of people for free rides in self-driving vehicles.

In California, 36 companies — including Intel, Toyota, Uber and Ford — have been approved over the past three years to conduct tests on autonomous vehicles.

In Ohio, workers are laying fiber optic cables and sensors building on a 35-mile stretch of road so driverless vehicles can someday communicate with each other on traffic, weather and other information.

But in New York, self-driving vehicles are coming at a far slower pace. And that could put the Empire State at a disadvantage in the years ahead, whether for manufacturing and research opportunities or where self-driving cars and trucks get marketed.

The most serious bow to autonomous vehicles came in this spring’s state budget, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and state lawmakers OK’d a one-year, limited test program on state roads.

Yet, with the 365-day testing window now one-third over, only one company — Audi — has signed up to test in New York. It brought one of its vehicles to the state in June, but only for a show-and-tell event outside the state Capitol as an education stop for lawmakers and officials.

The News contacted more than a half-dozen people involved in the nation’s autonomous vehicle industry, and they all raised concerns about New York’s sloth-like path to driverless vehicles.

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.

New York’s new testing law is a “good first step” because it allows tests to be performed hands-free, said Daniel Gage, a spokesman at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

“If the state is interesting in attracting this type of technology, if the state is truly interested in bringing these life-saving technologies to market, it ought to consider how the one hand on the wheel (law) impacts the technology in the state and move quickly to remove that impediment,’’ Gage said.

Industry officials say testing periods in states are not just about evaluating technology, but also opportunities to help persuade consumers that driverless cars are not something to fear.

“Part of the challenge is going to be how to get consumers to experience this to help raise their confidence and trust in the technology and that it works,’’ said Chan Lieu, a consultant to the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a group founded last year by Ford, Uber, Lyft, Volvo and Google’s sister company Waymo.

New York’s baby steps

New York began its testing application period in May. Unlike other states, it has a tight time restriction: the testing period ends next April 1.

By June 1, a state report is due about the tests, which could be used to consider the next statutory or regulatory steps.

How comprehensive the report will be is uncertain. Audi, the sole company to sign up so far, does not plan to return for testing in New York until later this year or next. It will test its new A8 vehicle, the first production car with Level Three autonomous abilities. That means it is an automated system that can perform some tasks and monitor driving environment with human driver ready, at system’s request, to take back controls.

New York has strict test rules. Unlike other states, New York requires a State Police escort for every test vehicle, and there is a charge: A minimum of $92 per hour, plus 54 cents a mile.

In addition to a $5 million insurance policy on each vehicle, companies must in advance inform the state about each test’s date, time, sequence of roads and total routing distance down to nearest 1/10 of a mile.

When he touted the new program in May, Cuomo conceded that New York’s effort is a “careful yet balanced approach” to encourage the tests while protecting road safety.

Brad Stertz, Audi’s Washington-based government affairs director, said New York’s one-hand driving law needs to end for the state to join the autonomous vehicle march.

“It puts New York at a disadvantage,’’ Stertz said. Some colleges — such as the University at Buffalo, which recently won a $1.2 million grant to research driverless cars — are poised to grow further if the driverless car industry fully embraces the state, he noted.

“We really want to work with a lot of stakeholders, including state government to figure out how this can work for New York because it is going to come and it would be a shame if New York were many years behind the curve,’’ Stertz said.

Auto executives say New York’s laws discourage not just testing and research efforts, but even publicity efforts.

In April, there was talk of getting Cuomo to kick off the New York Auto Show, a major industry event, by having him riding in an autonomous car. Automakers shied away when it was clear they would be breaking the 1967 law. Cuomo, doing a smoky burnout in front of cameras, ended up driving a Dodge Demon, a muscle car.

In New York, a state DOT spokeswoman said the agency has no “active funding programs related to autonomous vehicles.’’ The state is involved with some research activities, but no details were provided.

Two weeks ago, a state motor vehicles agency spokesman said Audi was the sole applicant for New York’s new test program. This past week, the official did not return calls or emails seeking any updated information.

Other states move ahead

More than half the states this year considered or passed some 70 different bills related to autonomous vehicle matters, industry executives say.

In Massachusetts, the governor created a working group to devise ways to “promote” autonomous vehicles.

In Michigan this fall, two driverless shuttles will ferry students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, a city that’s attracting major autonomous vehicle research dollars.

In California, officials ordered road line markings widened from four inches to six inches — a move to partly help vehicles with automated machine vision for guidance, said state transportation agency spokesman Mark Dinger. That state has spent $5 million on autonomous research for cars, trucks, buses and snowplows.

In Ohio, Gov. John R. Kasich has made the technology a top transportation priority. Ohio this year announced $45 million to expand the Transportation Research Center — a 4,500-acre test facility long used by companies around the world — dedicated to driverless vehicle testing. That’s on top of the $15 million fiber optic and sensor project along a portion of U.S. Route 33 dubbed the “Smart Mobility Corridor.’’

“If we become a bigger player in this emerging field, hopefully some of the manufacturers will see the value of bringing research and development and maybe even manufacturing jobs to Ohio,’’ said Ohio transportation department spokesman Matt Bruning.

Ohio’s Turnpike is involved, too. It has hosted testing of a self-driving truck and is collaborating on driverless technology with agencies, universities and test centers in the state as well as from Pennsylvania and Michigan. And it is planning a project on 60-mile corridor so driverless cars can “talk” with everything from road emergency systems to work zone locations.

“If transportation agencies are too slow to accommodate and embrace the new technologies, then we’re going to have a difficult time competing and meeting the needs of our customers,’’ Turnpike Executive Director Randy Cole said.

New York's slow pace

Back in New York, the state Senate tried to amend the 1967 one-hand driving mandate. But the legislation died in the Assembly. Senator Joseph Robach, a Rochester area Republican who heads the Transportation Committee, says New York is “in the middle of the pack” among states in embracing autonomous vehicles.

“I think the Legislature should lead, but certainly if they don’t, the marketplace will drive the demand on the Legislature,’’ Robach said.

Sen. Chris Jacobs, a Buffalo Republican, was a sponsor of a road testing bill that got folded into April’s budget. He said other states have been “more aggressive” than New York but that the new testing program is an opening.

“Some level of autonomous vehicles is coming and coming more quickly than we thought a couple years ago. I think we should be engaged in this,’’ Jacobs said.

The unresolved issues go beyond technology. While advocates say autonomous vehicles will sharply reduce auto accidents, the vast majority of which involve some level of human error or choice, how will the new forms of driverless vehicles affect the state’s tort-based system? How will insurers set their rates?

Insurance firms and trial lawyers are among several sectors that have lobbied on autonomous vehicle legislation in New York.

New York Insurance Association President Ellen Melchionni said it is far from certain how successful automated vehicles will be in cutting accident rates.

“Automation in driving should not be viewed as a panacea for a dramatic rise in the number of auto accidents and the severity of those accidents,’’ she said.

©2017 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.