Canada asleep at wheel with self-driving cars, says Senate

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Canada is asleep at the wheel when it comes to the future of self-driving cars, a Senate committee reports, and needs to get organized if it wants to avoid trouble ahead.

The Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communication released its Driving Change study on automated and connected vehicles last Jan. 31.

Automakers are now developing cars that can drive themselves (automated) and ones that can talk to the Internet (connected).

These technologies are already on Canadian roads and could become commonplace in 15 years, the panel found. While these vehicles could save Canadians $65 billion a year in fuel, congestion, collision and productivity costs, they could also put up to 1.1 million jobs at risk and allow cyberterrorists to seize control of cars.

“Canada is ill-prepared for the fast approaching future of transportation,” concluded the committee, which was chaired by Sen. David Tkachuk.

“There is an urgent need for all three levels of government to start planning for the arrival of these technologies in order to address concerns and to ensure that Canadians realize the full potential of automated and connected vehicles.”

Many people don’t realize how close these technologies are to hitting the road, said St. Albert’s Paul Godsmark, co-founder of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence and a contributor to the Senate committee’s report. Suncor just recently announced that it would have about 150 automated trucks at its oilsands sites within six years – it already has nine in the field – and those trucks will put drivers out of work. GM says it plans to start mass-producing self-driving cars next year.

“We’re not ready in that we haven’t put regulations and legislation into place across most of Canada to test this technology, let alone operate it,” he said.

Promise and peril

The committee found that self-driving cars could make the 1,700 Canadian traffic deaths in Canada in 2015 due to human error “grim relics of a primitive past” as cars cruise safely under computer control.

That’s great, but that could be bad for many of St. Albert’s car repair shops, Godsmark said.

“Two to six per cent of the economy is (based on) road crashes,” he said, and fewer crashes mean less business for repair and insurance companies.

Economics suggest that self-driving cars are best operated as fleets powered by electricity, which could mean less pollution but also less business for dealerships and gas stations, Godsmark continued.

The committee noted that self-driving cars could reduce congestion, but could also worsen it by clogging roads with empty cars. They also noted, with concern, that car-makers could sell data collected on you by automated cars for a profit.

Experts told the committee that current efforts to address automated vehicles were scattered across many industries, governments, and departments, creating the risk of a patchwork of rules across the country.

The committee made 16 recommendations, which included calls for a national strategy for autonomous and connected vehicles, safety guidelines, cybersecurity measures, and new laws to give the privacy commissioner more control over how car companies use information collected by their cars.

Godsmark said self-driving cars would have significant implications for transportation in St. Albert in the next five years, and called on the city to create a plan that would advise residents and businesses of the potential impacts.

The City of St. Albert has actually commissioned a strategy that examines self-driving cars as part of its smart city efforts, said spokesperson Cory Sinclair. Due next month, the Intelligent Transportation System strategy should help the city set goals for road safety, innovation, and environmental impacts related to these new cars.

City crews are also studying connected vehicles through the national ACTIVE-AURORA project (which is testing such cars on Edmonton-area streets) and later this year will upgrade traffic signals along St. Albert Trail so they can talk to self-driving cars, Sinclair said.

The senate study is available at sencanada.ca/en/newsroom/trcm-driving-change.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.