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B.C. gears for 'imminent' arrival of self-driving cars

B.C.’s government is keeping an eye on driverless vehicles, an emerging technology that experts say will be the most profound change in transportation in a century.
An artist's rendering from UBC's Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab envisions Vancouver's Burrard Bridge with lanes dedicated to driverless cars.

B.C.’s government is keeping an eye on driverless vehicles, an emerging technology that experts say will be the most profound change in transportation in a century.

According to a recently released report: “The arrival of automated vehicles (AVs) — also known as autonomous, self-driving, or driverless vehicles — is imminent” in Canada.

That report, a collaboration between the Conference Board of Canada, the Van Horne Institute, and the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE), encourages different levels of government to consider the impacts of automated vehicles in urban planning, transit and infrastructure projects.

“Canada is beginning to lag in recognizing and preparing for the large impact this disruptive digital technology will have on our society,” says the report.

Study co-author Paul Godsmark said: “Essentially, autonomous vehicles are going to transform society.”

The first generation of AVs is already with us, said Godsmark, chief technology officer for CAVCOE, an advocacy group. Some cars already have semi-automated features, such as assisted parallel parking. Google has rolled out prototype AVs in California and elsewhere, and company representatives said a mass-market version could be available as early as 2017.

Godsmark said it’s been difficult for engineers and planners to understand the implications of this technology, because the field hasn’t seen such a fundamental “paradigm shift” since the change from the horse and carriage to the car.

In Metro Vancouver, where taxpayers are debating the merits of the 10-year, $7.5-billion plan proposed by the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation, autonomous vehicles have been examined as part of the planning process.

Greg Moore, the mayor of Port Coquitlam and chair of the Metro Vancouver Regional District, said that while the “jury is still out on many aspects” of the timing and impact of this technology, “we are closely monitoring developments in the industry.”

AnnaLisa Meyboom, director of UBC’s Transportation Infrastructure and Public Space Lab, has been researching driverless cars and their potential impacts.

If regional planners and governments are tempted to write off AVs as science-fiction fantasy, Meyboom said, “that would be a big mistake.”

“I’m not sure that all levels of government are paying attention to this technology. And I think it’s going to have a huge impact,” she said.

But before British Columbians can legally hop into a driverless car and nap on their commute home from work, legislative changes would be needed.

Transport Canada would first need to make changes to recognize driverless cars under the Canadian Motor Vehicle Safety Standard, according to an emailed statement from B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure.

Then, the province “would likely need to consider drafting provincial vehicle standards,” said the ministry spokeswoman. “Changes to legislation and vehicle registration and licensing would also be required before driverless cars were allowed on public roads in B.C.”

The spokeswoman added: “The ministry is monitoring the developments and tests that are being carried out around self-driving cars in other jurisdictions. ICBC is directly involved in industry discussions surrounding best practices with other jurisdictions, including learning from jurisdictions such as California, which have taken preliminary steps in this direction.”

Jonn Axsen, an SFU professor who specializes in transitions to sustainable transportation modes, is more skeptical about driverless cars making an imminent impact on the mainstream.

“I’m kind of the buzzkill,” said Axsen, who has researched the history of what he calls “hype cycles.”

Asked about driverless cars, he pointed to the early 1990s, when several companies and experts were claiming electric cars would be widespread within a few years. That prediction, of course, didn’t pan out.

“It’s natural with new technology,” Axsen said. “Something starts to come out and everyone thinks, ‘Oh great. It’s here. Everything’s going to change, we’re going to be flying around in cars that drive themselves in 10 years,’” he said. “We’re talking about hype.” 

5 levels of automation

Level 0 — No automation: Driver is in complete control of primary vehicle controls (brake, steering, throttle) at all times.

Level 1 — Function-specific automation: This level is not uncommon today. Driver has overall control, but the vehicle can take over certain controls, such as cruise control or automatic braking.

Level 2 — Combined function automation: Driver is still responsible for safe operation and is expected to be available for control at all times on short notice.

Level 3 — Limited self-driving automation: Vehicle assumes full control of all safety-critical functions. Driver is not expected to constantly monitor the roadway, but is available for occasional control, with sufficiently comfortable transition time.

Level 4 — Full self-driving automation: Vehicle performs all driving functions and monitors roadway conditions for entire trip. Driver can provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. Vehicle can complete trip while unoccupied.

— Source: U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administratio