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Self-driving cars may not be coming to New York anytime soon

Janell Tryon. Brought to you by Microsoft

From the way we pay our bills to how we vacuum our floors and even date, New Yorkers have increasingly relied on automation. But let’s face it: Most days, that whirring disc of a vacuum can’t find its way around the trash can without our guidance. And autonomous vehicles (AVs), or self-driving cars, still require quite a bit of human steering, according to the NYC Department of Transportation.

When asked about the place of AVs on NYC streets, DOT spokesman Seth Stein said, “The mayor has concerns about safety and testing an unproven technology on the busy streets of lower Manhattan.” Well over a year ago, Governor Cuomo approved General Motors’ AV program, Cruise, to beta-test its fleet of automated cars in the city. The bump in the road? According to Stein, that legislation was signed without the input of Mayor De Blasio and the NYPD. Though the tech world may rush unthinkingly toward convenience, local leaders have put the brakes on AVs in the name of safety.

Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter, a foundation committed to urban mobility and transportation advocacy, agrees, saying, “Even technology companies are acknowledging that [AV] time lines are slipping.”

But AVs are heading elsewhere. Like much of the densely populated East Coast, New York is gazing west, where Phoenix, San Francisco and other major cities are testing self-driving cars on public streets. Sarah Kaufman, the Associate Director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management, reminds us that, unlike our chaotic, crowded Gotham, cities on the West Coast have fewer pedestrians and tend to be smaller, tamer and more predictable. “If self-driving cars can make it in New York, they can make it anywhere,” claims Kaufman. “But they’re not ready for here just yet.”

In other words: No Batmobiles anytime soon. Holy disappointment, Batman? Not so fast. City officials are still preparing for this potential tech by improving traffic lights and opening up curb space, as well as taking other incremental steps, notes Kaufman. But these conversations have caused many New Yorkers to focus on our original claim to transit fame: the MTA. “A much better use of our public investment is making the subway truly accessible,” says Richardson. “We have this great system that some people can’t use.”

Maybe one of the world’s oldest public-transportation systems could use some innovation first.

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