New Yorkers Want Driverless Cars to Prioritize Pedestrian Safety

Photo: Foo Conner/Flickr
Photo: Foo Conner/Flickr

The vast majority of New Yorkers want vehicle manufacturers to prioritize pedestrian safety in any self-driving cars deployed on city streets, according to a poll commissioned by Transportation Alternatives.

Conducted by Penn Schoen Berland Research, the poll presented 880 likely New York City voters with a version of the “trolley problem” thought exercise.

“In the poll question,” says TA, “a self-driving car has only two options: swerve to avoid hitting a pedestrian, which may cause the car occupant to be injured, OR continue and hit the pedestrian.”

In that scenario, Mercedes-Benz has said its self-driving models will prioritize vehicle occupants.

The sample of likely voters skewed toward car owners (68 percent of respondents) compared to the overall NYC population (46 percent of households). Nevertheless, 80 percent of respondents said the car should swerve to avoid the pedestrian, while 5 percent said the car should prioritize the safety of the vehicle occupant.

“New York will play a leadership role in the regulation of autonomous vehicles, and this poll sends a powerful message that protecting the most vulnerable people on our streets must be the priority for cities managing these driverless cars,” said TA Executive Director Paul Steely White in a statement.

Policy makers and advocates have been developing frameworks for managing self-driving cars in case the technology matures to the point where it can be brought to market. The National Association of City Transportation Officials last year released a position statement saying self-driving cars must enhance safety for people outside vehicles and operate in a way that “rebalances” street space in favor of active transportation and transit.

The technology isn’t ready for city streets yet. Last month Uber deployed self-driving cars with human “back-up drivers” in San Francisco, in violation of California law, and was forced to retreat. One problem with the cars was their inability to properly navigate bike lanes.

TA says it will release more results from the poll over the coming weeks.

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