Most people hear the term “autonomous vehicles” (AVs) and imagine a futuristic scene with robots delivering your mail and drones dropping the latest household purchase off on your front step. While this vision might seem to belong to the distant future, the fact is that the future is now, and autonomous vehicles are much closer to being a mainstream reality than ever before.

Industry experts predict that, within the next 10 years, fully autonomous vehicles will be available for commercial sale. The federal government recognizes the speed of this technological advancement; the 2016 federal budget allocated $7.3 million over two years to develop regulations for emerging technologies in this area, and the 2017 federal budget allocated $76.7 million over five years to Transport Canada to develop regulations for the safe adoption of connected vehicles (those equipped with Internet access) and autonomous vehicles. The Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications has begun a study on the deployment of these vehicles. All these developments are signs that AVs will soon be here.

Given the rapid pace of change, it is important to get a regulatory framework and parameters for the technology’s use into effect before AVs hit the road in large numbers in Canada. We should avoid a repeat here of recent clashes in the United States between companies operating AVs and state-level transportation authorities. For example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles ordered Uber to remove its test AVs from the roads after a vehicle that was operating without a permit was caught driving through a red light. Uber refused to comply with the requirement and relocated its fleet of AVs from California to Arizona, where there are no regulations for testing on public roads.

Manufacturers currently produce partially automated cars. Some automation systems just feed information to drivers; more advanced systems can assume control of the vehicle at the driver’s request or even take it over when it wanders into unsafe situations. Future technologies will provide increased levels of automation until the presence of a human driver is no longer required.

A major stumbling block facing the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles will be getting public buy-in: establishing trust in the safety of the vehicles seems to be the biggest challenge. A study conducted by Deloitte surveyed 22,000 drivers from 17 countries and found that 75 percent of American drivers do not believe that AVs will be safe to drive. Respondents from two of the world’s most technologically advanced countries, South Korea and Japan, also perceive AVs to be unsafe, at levels of 81 percent and 79 percent respectively. Interestingly, the same study found that American drivers would change their stance on AVs if the vehicles were manufactured by a brand they trust. Manufacturers will need to establish a safety track record and may have to introduce this technology gradually.

In November 2016, Transport Canada issued an RFP to evaluate the safety of driver-vehicle interactions in AVs, a project consistent with the overall role of the department, which has Canadians’ safety at the heart of its mandate. It must ensure that regulations continue to protect Canadians as the technology evolves.

Various industries are active in the field. Uber, Google’s Waymo and Nissan are on track for either full fleet conversion or significantly increased manufacturing of completely autonomous vehicles between 2017 and 2021. Currently, single-lane autonomous driving (which keeps the car within a single lane on multilane roads) is available in Japan’s Nissan Serena; according to Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn, approximately 60 percent of buyers already pay for the option. Start-up companies, software developers, leaders in the technology field and car manufacturers are all investing heavily in artificial intelligence.

Once cars can operate completely autonomously, we may see a shift in financing models, from individual ownership to shared arrangements. A car that can park itself in any location and be remotely called upon to pick up a passenger can be easily shared by multiple users, eliminating the need for individual vehicle ownership. When Uber transitions to AV fleets, it will offer autonomous ride-hailing services, effectively replacing more than 1 million human drivers with a computer program and offering a cost-effective ride-share program. According to Uber’s former CEO, Travis Kalanick, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.

There are drawbacks to introducing AVs. One major challenge is the potential for negative impacts on the labour force. It is expected that the introduction of AVs will significantly shrink demand for Canadian workers who currently earn a living driving a vehicle: taxi drivers, transit workers and truckers. AVs will also create and communicate large amounts of data related to position, location, speed and destination, thus raising important privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

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Commentators are anticipating that the most serious issue will be accountability and liability. In an accident, who is accountable when there is no one inside the vehicle piloting it? The manufacturer? The occurrence of an accident implies that the maker must have sold a defective vehicle. Legal experts note that manufacturers would not escape liability claims in cases where the driver assistance technology fails to prevent a crash. The same questions are being asked by Transport Canada. If we’re not dealing with drivers anymore, who’s going to control this technology? And who’s going to certify the technology? These are big questions that require creative answers.

Development of AVs can be part of Canada’s innovation agenda and boost our economy overall. Innovation has at its heart the streamlining of productivity and efficiency. Investing in innovation will support growth in an economy where AVs could have a major positive impact. Estimates suggest that the economic benefit could be as high as $65 billion a year, including collision and congestion avoidance, fuel cost savings and health care savings from reducing the number of motor vehicle accidents.

The Ontario government has introduced regulations for road testing of autonomous vehicles. The University of Waterloo, Erwin Hymer Group and Blackberry QNX have received approval to begin testing AVs on Ontario roads, but Canada is the last of the G7 countries to approve such testing. Being late to the AV space should not be viewed as a policy failure. Canada is becoming more active and taking specific measures, at a time when AVs are still considered an emerging technology. In fact, policy-makers may be moving at just the right speed. Moving prematurely to develop regulations based on unknown or untested assumptions about these vehicles runs the risk of unintentionally stifling innovation.

A policy framework for AVs should evolve through consultations with industry experts and provincial officials. Municipal officials may also want a say; the City of Toronto has begun research on the implications of autonomous and automated vehicle technology. Because AVs are an international commodity, Canada, the United States and the European Union would have to work together on the development of regulations to ensure a coordinated approach. The upcoming NAFTA renegotiations present an opportunity for Canada and the US to develop uniform guidelines that would assist automakers to develop and test AVs.

One of the first policy building blocks is the Senate committee’s study on autonomous and connected vehicles. This extensive undertaking will likely lay the foundation for the development of future regulations as Canada embraces this disruptive technology and moves to capture the opportunities it offers.

Photo: Shutterstock, by gst

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Ann Marie Pullen
Ann Marie Pullen is a consultant with Global Public Affairs, Canada’s leading public affairs consultancy and the largest independently owned firm of its kind in the country. She is an avid watcher of the future, cool technologies and public policy solutions.  

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