GM Should Pay By the Mile to Test Its Robocars in Manhattan

And the rate should be higher where congestion is worse. The cost would still be a drop in the bucket to the automotive giant, but Governor Cuomo should use his leverage now to set important public policy precedents.

The streets of Lower Manhattan are thick with pedestrians, and cars are a bad fit. Image: Google Maps
The streets of Lower Manhattan are thick with pedestrians, and cars are a bad fit. Image: Google Maps

Five square miles of Lower Manhattan are slated to become a test track for autonomous vehicle prototypes next year, Governor Cuomo announced yesterday.

Access to NYC streets could be invaluable to General Motors and its subsidiary, Cruise Automation, as they seek to refine their robot car technology in complex urban settings. Instead of rushing headlong into this trial, Cuomo should work with the city to get something in return: precedents that will steer autonomous vehicle operations to achieve public goals.

The decision to test Level 4 AVs — which mainly operate without human direction but require people in the vehicle to take over if needed — came as a surprise to city officials. “There was no notification to DOT until [Monday] night on the timing, details or testing area of a pilot,” a DOT spokesperson told Gothamist. “In general, the outreach to DOT overall does not even qualify as consulting the agency that oversees 6,000 miles of streets.”

It’s not a promising start to a process that could have far-reaching consequences for New York and other cities. Assuming the pilot does go forward, this is an important moment to lay down some markers for how autonomous cars should operate on city streets.

Zipcar founder and former CEO Robin Chase has said that if governments don’t use their regulatory power wisely, AVs could lead to a “nightmare scenario” of more congestion in cities, crowding out surface transit, biking, and walking. It doesn’t have to be that way, but in order for AVs to reduce car ownership and traffic, elected officials like Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio have to intentionally guide the process.

A pilot project in Lower Manhattan presents an obligation to steer policy in at least two respects: public safety, and charging for the use of autonomous vehicles on public streets.

In Lower Manhattan, which is thick with pedestrians and where cars barely fit, a maximum speed of 10 mph is appropriate on many streets. Some locations might call for even lower max speeds — the city has already mapped out areas where pedestrians should feel like they own the pavement. It’s essential that the parameters for safe operation of these vehicles are set by NYC DOT, and not left up to GM and the state government alone.

General Motors and Cruise Automation should also pay for the privilege of using Lower Manhattan streets. In addition to any general access fee for the pilot program, these payments should come in the form of charges per mile driven that vary according to congestion. The point would not be to generate revenue but to set a precedent for charging autonomous vehicles to use scarce road space.

One of the promising aspects of autonomous car technology is that it can facilitate a better system of road pricing than the free-for-all we have now, where giving away street space leads to gridlock, slow bus service, and worse conditions for walking and biking. With a shared fleet of autonomous vehicles that always have a meter running, rates could increase where and when demand is highest, keeping congestion under control. The alternative, where robot cars can drive anywhere for free, is the path to Robin Chase’s nightmare scenario.

GM may still be in the testing phase, but it’s not too early to start avoiding the nightmare. If Governor Cuomo is going to allow autonomous car prototypes to operate in real city conditions, he needs to insist on a prototype for how these vehicles will pay for access to public streets.

  • djx

    Remember, Cuomo will take credit for stuff that goes, well, while will dodge out if it doesn’t. That’s him M.O. If this goes well, he’ll say he was a big visionary and early supporter. If not, he’ll be asking where was the DOT?

  • Jason

    “Why didn’t de Blasio make sure it went better?”

  • JK

    Do many expert types believe robot cars will have instructions that allow them to bully bicyclists and pedestrians? My understanding was that engineers were baffled and did not know how to write rules that allow the robots to operate safely around bikes and still move. Is it anticipated that congress will attempt to give autonomous vehicles exemption from personal injury liability? Because otherwise, how do they bully cyclists? If a robot car hits you and you can show the algo allowed dangerous operation, well, the car company loses big.

  • Joe R.

    I’m not seeing how this could ever happen, either. The worry is that robotic cars might be stopped dead for long periods in places with heavy pedestrian traffic. The way around this is to proactively monitor intersections and route cars around any with heavy pedestrian traffic. And also to turn around those which are already there. Any thoughts of programming in “bullying” behavior should be nipped in the bud.

  • qrt145

    I can only see two outcomes and I don’t like either of them: either the cars will be programmed to bully, with a touch of artificial road rage, or the government will start corralling pedestrians and cyclists and crack down on both. Otherwise I see no way robot cars will be able to move in places like Manhattan.

  • Vooch

    Bad idea to charge more than other users are charged.

  • Vooch

    They will move slowly and safely

    They will drive the speed limit

  • Larry Littlefield

    Right, no autonomous car that would not kill pedestrians and cyclists otherwise would ever be able to make a turn in the heart of Midtown, except between 12 am and 5 am.

    Probably they would have to have a human take over and inch through the crosswalk.

  • Rex Rocket

    However they are programmed, even to run you over if you don’t get out of the way in 20 seconds— still safer than drivers.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Drop your bicycle, you have 20 seconds to comply

  • macartney

    Why pay by the mile, when GM can just pay into Cuomo’s reelection slush fund?

  • Maggie

    Cybersecurity and insurance (firstt, how hackable are these, and second, what entity bears liability after an AV crash) are two glaring unsolved areas in this field, as I understand it.

    It really struck me (no pun intended) than GM announced they plan to test Level 4 autonomy, which is specified to be capable of avoiding all other road users without ANY involvement from the person behind the wheel. Level 3 is specified that the software can handle MOST hazards, but beeps at the driver to take back control in dangerous situations, and humans are physiologically terrible at responding in time. The Tesla fatality in Florida was a level 3 situation – car’s software pinged the driver to stay alert, he ignored it and drove straight into a truck.

    To my mind, if GM actually does have “level 4” tech, it should be much safer than we shitty human drivers are. But cybersecurity is completely unsolved.


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