San Francisco recently initiated a first-of-its-kind experiment with 24/7 self-driving taxis that has some wondering whether New York City and other metropolises could follow suit. Autonomous vehicles check several boxes of the City’s “Vision Zero” aspirations, but its congested streets could pose unique challenges. New Yorkers have also expressed concerns about self-driving cars.
New York state law currently does not provide a regulatory framework for commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles. Both partially and fully autonomous car crashes raise complicated legal questions that should be discussed with a car accident attorney.
Lessons From San Francisco
The California Public Utilities Commission agreed in August to allow Waymo and Cruise to expand their self-driving taxi operations in San Francisco. Previously, the companies could only operate a certain number of robotaxis and charge fares under limited circumstances.
Public safety was one of the major arguments in favor of San Francisco robotaxis. CPUC Commissioner John Reynolds said in a press release that he believes in “the potential of this technology to increase safety on the roadway.”
But less than two months into the experiment, a string of accidents caused California regulators to suspend Cruise’s AV license. The decision followed an October 2 incident in which a Cruise vehicle struck a pedestrian and then stopped atop her, pinning the woman beneath the vehicle. Amid state and federal safety investigations, Cruise has pulled all its autonomous vehicles from the roads in San Francisco, Austin, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, and Miami.
Cruise and Waymo AVs have been involved in a number of San Francisco traffic incidents, including blocking emergency vehicles and collisions with other vehicles and pedestrians. From October 2014 through October 2023, the California DMV reported more than 500 self-driving car crashes in San Francisco.
Autonomous Vehicles and Vision Zero
New York City has embraced a Vision Zero policy that calls for eliminating all traffic deaths and serious injuries citywide.
Under Vision Zero, traffic crashes are considered preventable incidents—not “accidents.” Vision Zero pushes back against the notion that most crashes are the result of human error, proposing systemic overhauls to transportation systems that put people first and reduce automobile dependency.
A 2017 Vision Zero policy paper states that technology advances, including autonomous and connected vehicles, have the potential to reduce the role of human error in crashes. And research from New York University says that the adoption of connected and autonomous vehicle technologies could provide safety benefits that “facilitate Vision Zero’s goals and initiatives.”
When and if autonomous vehicles prove to be safer than human drivers, it would represent a major tipping point for traffic safety. In 2021 and 2022, around 43,000 Americans per year died in traffic crashes and millions were injured. But AV safety is still up for debate.
New York Times reporter Cade Metz said in August that that “We don’t yet know” whether self-driving cars are safer than human drivers. Waymo, however, says its driverless cars are safer than cars driven by humans, citing an insurance study that shows a 100% reduction in bodily injury claim frequency and a 76% decrease in property damage claims compared to human-operated vehicles.
A Waymo report released in February says that the company’s AVs experienced 20 crashes during their first million miles of operation. These crashes resulted in no reported injuries and just two of the collisions were serious enough to warrant inclusion in NHTSA’s car crash database. Most were initiated by the other driver and there were just two cases where a Waymo collided with another vehicle.
Cruise driverless cars have not fared as well as Waymo. Cruise reported 36 crashes in its first million driverless miles. Both manufacturers have had trouble with vehicles hitting inanimate objects.
Cruise seems to have a harder time with intersections, which, according to Ars Technica, may have to due with software differences between the two companies. Another difference is that Cruise has operated mainly in San Francisco, a more chaotic driving environment than the Phoenix suburbs where Waymo did most of its early testing.
Is New York Ready for Driverless Cars?
If driving environment is a factor in robotaxi safety, then New York City—the country’s largest and most densely developed urban area—might be the final boss for autonomous vehicles.
Waymo began mapping NYC streets in 2021 but after collecting data has not announced plans to launch services here. This could partly be due to strict driving rules and the lack of a regulatory framework for the state. David Do, the head of NYC’s Taxi and Limousine Commissioner, said in his confirmation hearing that the City needs self-driving car regulations.
NYC DOT adopted requirements for testing autonomous vehicles effective in September 2021. The state DMV allows for limited autonomous vehicle testing permits that require a licensed driver behind the wheel.
A bill introduced in the 2021-2022 legislative session that would allow for fully autonomous vehicles notes New York State law does not have rules for commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles in the state. New York only has a “limited autonomous vehicle testing program, which is set to expire on April 1, 2023,” the bill adds.
Many residents believe NYC doesn’t need more vehicles—it needs fewer. There are safety advocates who say autonomous vehicles could exacerbate current traffic violence problems and should not be considered a replacement for proven solutions like safe road design.
Overall, New Yorkers appear reluctant to embrace self-driving cars. Elizabeth Carey, public relations director for AAA of Western and Central New York, told Spectrum News that 68% of people are afraid of getting in a fully self-driving vehicle. That number has increased 13% over the past year.
Driverless Cars and Personal Injuries
Whether a vehicle is fully autonomous or has advanced driver assistance system features, such as adaptive cruise control, driver drowsiness detection, or lane departure warning, it can raise complicated legal questions when it’s in an accident.
A human driver may not bear full liability for an accident involving semi-autonomous systems. But these issues are still playing out in courts and the question of who is to blame for an autonomous vehicle accident isn’t always obvious.
As long as there are cars and car accidents, there will be a need for experienced car accident lawyers. For a free case review, call or contact The Sanders Law Firm.