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New York on the road to driverless cars

An Audi A7 equipped with self-driving technology and nicknamed “Jack” made a pit stop this week at the state Capitol in Albany, N.Y., where legislation permitting the use of automated cars statewide gained traction and passed the Senate on Wednesday.

The Audi, equipped with special lighting and sound warnings when the driver activates the car’s self-driving features, recently made the 566-mile trip from California’s Silicon Valley to Las Vegas, with 90 percent of the drive completed with the car on autopilot.

With such technology set to be ready for auto showrooms in two years, New York senators voted in favor of the bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Joseph Robach. Supporters say the bill would help make roads safer and reduce traffic jams on state highways.

“With the successful passage of this legislation, we have successfully taken steps to remove any roadblocks that might have prevented the sale of self-driving vehicles, allowing New Yorkers to have the opportunity to utilize this technology,” Robach said in a prepared statement.

The law currently on the books in New York requires drivers to always have at least one hand on the wheel.

New York’s move follows similar legislative actions in states across the nation. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, lawmakers in 15 states have introduced legislation related to autonomous driving technology so far this year.

Autonomous vehicles are equipped with an array of lasers, cameras and radars designed to see people and objects up to 200 yards away. A microprocessor constantly analyzes the data so the vehicle travels safely to its destination, accelerating and braking as needed.

Cities have also swerved into the discussions over driverless vehicles. In Southern California, the Beverly Hills City Council last month unanimously approved a resolution that commits the city to putting in place the nation’s first driverless shuttle system.

“We are currently in discussions with all interested parties, from regulators at the state and national levels to a wide variety of tech companies and original equipment manufacturers, in addition to other policy makers,” Mayor John Mirisch told AMI Newswire.

He said the city’s ultimate plan is to allow residents to use smartphones to hail self-driving shuttles capable of carrying up to 12 people. The system would provide point-to-point travel in the city, with a goal of conveniently getting residents to and from a planned subway station that will connect the city to the region’s Metro Rail system in about seven years.

“We’re convinced the technology will be ready for prime time long before the opening of our first subway station in 2023 and would hope to have a fully deployable system within five years – or sooner,” Mirisch said.

He predicted that the system would provide increased mobility to seniors, city visitors, blind citizens and the disabled. In addition, such a system would reduce congestion and traffic accidents, Mirisch said.

“It would increase road safety, since AVs don’t get drunk or distracted,” the mayor said.

The nation’s car-manufacturing center – Michigan – this week also began the process of updating its automated vehicle law. The Republican majority floor leader in the state Senate, Mike Kowall, introduced a series of bills aimed at ending obstacles to research and getting driverless vehicle technology swiftly to the marketplace.

“A robust and free environment for testing and development will ensure the Michigan economy benefits from this new technology and changes in mobility,” Kowall said in a prepared statement.

The Michigan package of bills would also authorize vehicle platoons, or convoys of self-driving vehicles that efficiently transport goods, and expand liability protections for companies involved in the manufacturing of autonomous vehicles.

Kowall said the legislation would protect the state’s dominance in automobile research and manufacturing, which he sees as under attack from other states.

And because 94 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error, autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of annual traffic fatalities in the nation, he said.

Despite the number of states moving to provide a legal framework for driverless vehicle, the road ahead may have a few bumps in it.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has compiled a draft of autonomous vehicle regulations that requires the cars to have steering wheels, brakes and accelerators so that a passenger can take over the controls if problems occur.

Jessica Gonzalez, assistant deputy director of public affairs at the DMV, told AMI Newswire that the agency has held two public workshops on the daft this year and is preparing to release its proposed regulations, though no release date has been announced.

But California-based Google, which began developing driverless car technology in 2009, designed and is now testing a new prototype car that has no wheel or pedals – the software and sensors are always in control.

New York’s new legislation also envisions driverless cars equipped with controls so a passenger can take the helm for safety reasons. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently drawing up guidelines for manufacturers on how such vehicles should be designed and whether human controls should be required.