Stick to the Stick

While I really dislike overly self-referential articles and TV guests and hosts—like Geraldo Rivera on FOX and Joe Scarborough on MSNBC—I will start this column on a personal note: I drive one of the few—maybe the only—Porsche Cayennes in the USA with a manual transmission, or what was called a “stick” back when I learned to drive in Italy on an Alfa Romeo Spider in the late 1960s. I have always had a stick shift in my cars. Perhaps that might explain why I have EXTRA reservations, or over skepticism, about so called “autonomous vehicles.” That is, I actually feel that I drive my car something like a pilot who must actually navigate with only some key instrument panel help. So when Governor Cuomo announced a few weeks ago that Audi of America Inc. was approved to perform an autonomous vehicle demonstration in New York State, I did not feel so positive. Earlier the Governor had announced that New York would now accept applications from companies interested in testing or demonstrating autonomous vehicles on public roads.

“Autonomous vehicles are a major part of the future of the automotive industry and this pilot program will help ensure New York continues to be a hub of innovation and cutting edge technology,” our ambitious Governor said. “This emerging technology has the potential to decrease accidents and save lives on our roadways, and with this approval we are one step closer to a safer and stronger New York for all.” Included in the FY 2018 Budget, new legislation allows for testing autonomous technology through a year-long pilot program. Audi of America Inc. was the first company to apply for the rights to demonstrate this technology in New York and the first to be approved under the program. The technology they plan to demonstrate in the Capital Region is considered to be a Level 3 in autonomous vehicle operations by the Society of Automobile Engineers, meaning it is capable of safely allowing hands-free driving at posted highway speeds, but requiring a person to take over if required. Two trained engineers will be in the vehicle to monitor the system and ensure safety, one in the front seat and one in the back seat. The vehicle has already logged thousands of miles on highways across the U.S. safely. The company’s vehicle routing information has been pre-approved by the New York State Police and its application was approved by the Department of Motor Vehicles on Friday, May 26. Responsible parties weighed in on this new introduction:

DMV Executive Deputy Commissioner Terri Egan said, “Governor Cuomo’s commitment to enhancing highway safety through technology has made New York State one of the safest places to drive in the nation. These first tests and demonstrations that will take place in New York truly are the building blocks of safer, more flexible and accessible means of transportation. Autonomous vehicle technology will soon take highway safety to a whole new level, and thanks to the Governor’s leadership I am confident that New York State will be ready.”

New York State Police Superintendent George P. Beach II said, “The State Police Department is committed to oversight of the autonomous vehicle testing process and eager to be a part of it. We will work with the individual companies and the Department of Motor Vehicles to ensure that the technologies are evaluated safely and appropriately.”

Brad Stertz, Director, Audi Government Affairs in Washington, D.C. said, “Automated vehicles have enormous potential to improve safety on New York roads, ease congestion and open up new mobility choices across the state’s diverse landscape. We applaud Governor Cuomo for his leadership and stand ready to assist in defining how this future will unfold in the Empire State now and for years to come.” Applications for testing may be submitted by manufacturers of “autonomous vehicle technology,” or companies creating such technology working in conjunction with manufacturers. All vehicles will also have to comply with federal safety standards and all applicable New York State inspection standards, and a person holding a valid driver’s license must be present in the driver’s seat at all times while it is operated on public highways. Each vehicle to be used must be listed in the application, and a $5 million insurance policy must be in place for any vehicles to be tested. I still don’t know if this is progress or fantasy or just great entertainment and experimentation. I remember the Jetsons and can adjust to drones to a degree, but giving up my stick is not my shtick, especially if I cannot see my new chauffeur. I wonder how a self-driving car would handle a “white out” on route 81 near Homer—one that almost resulted in a near-death situation for me on the way home from Syracuse some years back. Would you get a recorded notice to “stay home” or “pull over” or “check your life insurance”?  Or would you rely upon experience to navigate your way out of it, by downshifting, braking, and avoiding disaster? Jury is out on autonomous vehicles.