Driverless cars panel hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer

Transit experts are grappling with how and if automated technology could better cities’ specific transit needs as more autonomous vehicles start to proliferate streets around the country.

At a driverless car panel that included representatives from New York City’s transit agencies and the auto industry, as well as planning experts, two questions were presented.

Will autonomous cars solve New York’s parking problems while improving street safety? Or will they inspire a new wave of car ownership that spurs a second exodus to the suburbs?

“There’s kind of two visions being forwarded,” said panelist Will Carry, senior director of special projects at the city Department of Transportation. “One is this utopian vision where people give up private auto ownership; everyone adopts the mobility as service model … and because auto ownership goes down and everything is automated, the system benefits immensely because of efficiency.”

“The other scenario is that autonomous vehicles make having a car and using a car in the city easier, so it has some of the opposite effects,” Carry continued.

The panel discussion, hosted by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in her office Tuesday, aimed to address New York’s conflicting relationship with the fledgling technology on the heels of the new federal guidelines for driverless cars that were unveiled earlier this month.

“Although New York specializes in New York exceptionalism, we do have a special case here,” said panelist Sarah Kaufman, of the NYU Rudin Center, “which is that often autonomous vehicles are programmed to not go within, say, three feet of a pedestrian. Here in New York, within three feet of a pedestrian is pretty much anywhere in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens.”

Carry said that the new U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines, which include a 15-point checklist for safety inspections, fall short in adapting the technology to dense urban areas.

“The guidelines themselves don’t really include that much of a focus on cities,” said Carry. “So we think that it’s important as New York state and the federal government ponder these potentially paradigm-changing technologies, that [the city] be included in that conversation.”

To watch the full panel discussion, visit livestream.com/galeabrewer/driverlessnyc.

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