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Driverless vehicles could lower the cost of getting around by car, prompting many people to abandon more efficient means such as public transit, experts fear.

Eric Risberg

Two years ago, Toronto officials sparked anger among some drivers in the city with a plan to institute tolls on several of the municipality’s main highways. Fortunately for those drivers, the provincial government intervened and prevented the controversial effort from coming into play.

Drivers in Toronto – and every major city, for that matter – may want to steel themselves, however, as tolls on highways and even city streets could become commonplace in the future.

Experts believe one of the main side effects of the coming shift to self-driving vehicles will be the introduction of road usage fees. If the autonomous revolution unfolds as some expect, users could end up paying every time they get in a car.

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“Everything in the future will be a paid-for service,” says Baher Abdulhai, director of the iCity Centre for Automated and Transformative Transportation Systems at the University of Toronto. “Regulation will need to be in place to price road usage.”

The logic hinges on the notion that self-driving vehicles – which are currently being tested in many major cities by technology companies such as Uber and Google – will increase traffic congestion rather than decrease it by making it easier and cheaper for people to get around.

Just as with ride-sharing apps such as Uber and Lyft, users are expected to be able to order a vehicle on their phone and have it arrive within minutes.

The potential benefits to such a scheme are numerous – individuals who can’t currently drive or afford a car will be able to get around in a private vehicle more easily while the need for ownership of these expensive cars and parking will be diminished.

But it could also increase congestion by having more idle vehicles on the streets waiting for users and by encouraging people to take more trips individually rather than through shared transportation such as public transit.

A number of studies are showing that Uber and Lyft are having precisely that effect. A recent report by Bruce Schaller, former deputy commissioner for traffic and planning in New York, for one, found that ride-sharing services have increased the number of cars on the streets of major cities by 180 per cent.

Mr. Abdulhai says the same is likely to happen with self-driving cars unless fees such as road tolls are implemented to control usage.

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“When you reduce the cost of any commodity, you consume more of it,” he says. “If you reduce the cost of chocolate, you’ll eat more of it even if you know it’s not good for your health.”

The bright side for anyone concerned about such fees is that they aren’t likely to arrive any time soon, at least not in North America, according to Michael Roschlau, an urban mobility adviser and former chief executive officer of the Canadian Urban Transit Association.

Autonomous vehicles – whether individual cars or shared transit such as buses or trams – are more likely to become commonplace first in municipalities with fewer layers of bureaucracy and government, he says. China, Singapore and Dubai are likely to experience the effects – and side effects – well before the likes of New York, Toronto or Vancouver.

“Most cities still haven’t come to grips with the opportunity,” Mr. Roschlau says. “[Our] municipalities haven’t shown much leadership yet and it’s unlikely they will because they tend to be slow on the uptake.”

Other experts believe the technology itself will slow the process as well. Recent reports from Arizona, where Google’s Waymo division is testing self-driving cars, suggest that human drivers are becoming increasingly annoyed with the overly cautious autonomous vehicles.

That could necessitate a reconfiguration of streets, which would in turn obviate the need for usage fees to fund the changes.

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“These vehicles are extremely cautious, slow and missing opportunities to merge,” says Krzysztof Czarnecki, head of the Generative Software Lab at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont. “When you have these low-speed [vehicles], you’re going to have to understand how to educate the public and maybe even design low-speed lanes for them.”

Dr. Czarnecki believes autonomy is more likely to arrive on highways in the form of self-driving trucks, because of the potential benefits. Not only would autonomous trucks help with the existing shortage of humans to drive them, they could also significantly alleviate traffic on highways by travelling primarily at night.

“There’s a huge opportunity there with great benefits for mobility,” he says. “We are much closer to being able to do that. The economic impact of that would be huge.”

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