Driverless cars, trucks and buses are going to cause a major economic headache, and the federal government needs to be ready, say advocates for the country's high tech and automotive sectors.
But Ottawa also needs to tread lightly as it moves to regulate Canada's blossoming autonomous vehicle industry, they caution.
Tucked away in last week's federal budget was a pledge to spend $7.3 million over two years to improve motor vehicle safety.
Part of that money was earmarked for developing regulations for emerging technologies, including automated vehicles.
The Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence welcomed the investment.
But the amount being spent in Canada on studying how to regulate is almost nothing compared to what other countries are investing to get autonomous vehicles on the road, said Barrie Kirk, the centre's executive director.
Canada lags far behind its G7 counterparts in preparing for what will be a hugely disruptive digital technology, Kirk told industry, government and academic leaders gathered in an Ottawa suburb Wednesday.
Britain's government last year set aside almost $200 million for research and development of driverless vehicle technology and to build wireless and other infrastructure to support the vehicles.
The money has led to an influx of matching private-sector spending to support research by automotive, IT and telecoms companies. Testing is also being conducted in the U.K. in advance of new driverless vehicle regulations.
In the United States, where vehicles are regulated state by state, the federal Department of Transportation has floated a model set of rules it hopes all states will adopt.
In Canada, ground transportation falls under provincial and territorial jurisdiction, making it difficult to enact regulations that would be consistent across the country.
Too much — or worse, inconsistent — regulation will stifle the industry by making Canada less attractive to companies wanting to conduct vehicle research, said Kirk.
"The more hurdles you raise, the fewer vehicles will be tested here," he said.
"At the moment, we in Canada are not really on the car companies' radar screens as much as I'd like them to be."
The effect that tech-driven services such as Uber have had on the taxi industry pales in comparison to the tremors that driverless vehicles will send through the economy, said Kirk.
Mark Aruja, chairman of Unmanned Systems Canada, said he expects a significant impact on jobs coming within the next three to 10 years.
"There's a huge change coming for those who drive as a profession," predicted Aruja, whose organization has been heavily involved in helping to build regulations around the ballooning remote-controlled drone marketplace in Canada.
Long-haul truck drivers, taxi drivers, even transit workers could be forced out of work as companies and municipal governments embrace transportation technologies that don't require someone behind the wheel, he said.
And, if predictions of significant reductions in automobile collisions hold true, everyone from insurance adjusters to auto body repair technicians could also feel the effects.
How cities are built will also be affected, say municipal leaders with their eyes on the technology.
"Just imagine not needing to own a car," said Bruce Lazenby, the CEO of Invest Ottawa who moderated a panel discussion Wednesday on autonomous vehicle ecosystems.
"You could get picked up in your driveway by a driverless car you order from a service," he mused.
"But wait, would you even need a driveway?" he rhetorically asked an audience of about 80 people.
"And what about parking garages?"
Still, even some of those most in tune with changes brought on by the high-tech revolution say they aren't so sure driverless vehicles are about to take over the roads completely.
"I own a motorcycle and I'm not about to give that up," quipped panellist John Wall, senior vice president and head of Blackberry-owned QNX Software Systems.
"And I will probably still drive a car . . . for recreation."
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