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The speed bumps on the road to the self-driving car future

A sense of inevitability has set in around the introduction of automated vehicles (AVs).

Some automation, such as automatic emergency braking and lane-departure correction, is already available on many cars. Tesla's Model S even offers a fairly advanced auto-pilot feature.

The idea of driverless cars makes enthusiasts queasy but proponents say safety, environmental and economic benefits will become obvious so quickly that the adoption rate will outstrip even that of information technology.

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"It'll be sooner than anybody is ready for it," Ford Motor Co. of Canada president, Dianne Craig, told the 2016 Globe Drive Auto Summit in February. "We already have a lot of semi-autonomous features in the vehicles today. I think the bigger issue is are we going to be ready for that when it comes and what will that look like?"

Susan Shaheen, who studies sustainable mobility at the University of California Berkeley, said a 2014 study by research firm IHS predicted AVs would constitute 9 per cent of vehicle sales by 2035 and 90 per cent 20 years later.

"The real question is not if, but what level of automation, and when," she said.

In a paper submitted to the federal government in December, the Canadian Automated Vehicle Centre for Excellence estimated that two years from now AVs could be on limited routes for low-speed, fair-weather ride-sharing services.

Fully automated all-weather AVs could be available for sale by 2020, the report says, and by 2025, broad acceptance of their use would push sales into high gear.

"One of the things I am relying on is the exponential development of technology, the fact that technology isn't moving at a linear growth pace, it is accelerating much faster than that," centre technical director Paul Godsmark, one of the report's co-authors, told Globe Drive.

To their backers, AVs' benefits seem self-evident. Traffic death and injury rates are expected to plunge with fewer fallible humans behind the wheel. Each AV could take between two and 13 vehicles off the road, depending on how many private car owners embrace automated car-sharing services.

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There are speed bumps on this road to transportation utopia – not just technological but also legal, regulatory, economic and human.

The tech

Driving is a nuanced activity, requiring assimilation of a flood of information rushing at you – traffic behaviour, jay-walking pedestrians, road signs, weather conditions – then making adjustments based on those inputs.

AVs are expected to do this quicker and more reliably. They won't be distracted and their artificial intelligence (AI) – coupled to on-board sensors, GPS and external data – will deliver near-flawless drives. But skeptics think it will take time to perfect.

For instance, should an AV facing an amber traffic light speed up to beat the red or slam on the brakes if it can't know what the human drivers in its lane may do? What about AV facing a choice of hitting a crowded school bus or a single pedestrian? A human might opt for the least harm (to the kids and the car's occupants) and run over the pedestrian. What would the AV do?

Mr. Godsmark says convergent technologies required for the kind of nuanced judgment humans use are evolving rapidly. AI-powered machines that learn from experience already exist, he said, adding Moore's Law, which predicted exponential growth in computing power, also applies to AI. "Essentially the technology can teach itself once you set it a task," he said. "The ability in that regime is just improving literally month by month."

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Road regulation

Developers, such as Google, aim for AVs that can function within existing infrastructure and regulations as long as signs and road markings are in good order.

"The first rule of robo-cars is, 'Thou shalt not change the infrastructure,'" Mr. Godsmark, quoting AV guru Brad Templeton, said.

The key is to ensure individual AVs can co-exist with each other and with human-driven vehicles. Ottawa has invested $1.5-million in a connected-vehicle test bed to develop vehicle-to-vehicle communications (V2V), Transport Canada said. V2V will allow vehicles, external transportation infrastructure and smartphones to talk to each other and provide information a single AV's sensors can't detect.

Provincial and U.S. state legislators are already factoring in AVs. Several jurisdictions have laws governing testing on public roads, which gives both auto makers and governments a view of how AVs will interact with conventional vehicles.

Ontario, for example, allows AVs to operate on any road with a driver on board to take over if there's a problem. Toyota is using Ann Arbor, Mich., as a giant testing ground for AV and connected vehicle technology.

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Transport Canada said it is ready to introduce new safety requirements as AV development evolves. It's also likely provincial motor vehicle rules will be tweaked as the AV fleet grows.

Accidents

Who's to blame if no one's behind the wheel?

This question will undoubtedly enrich a few lawyers, Mr. Godsmark said. "We know that there will be issues but the tort system is designed to deal with exactly this sort of complex issue."

Volvo and Google, among others, have announced they will accept liability if their AVs are involved in accidents, at least during the development phase, presumably to expedite real-world testing.

Once AVs come into wider commercial use, courts likely will end up sorting out fault in various scenarios, such as if a vehicle's system has been hacked or tampered with by its occupant.

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Driver training

Some human involvement will probably be legally required during at least the transitional phase of AV development, the ability for an occupant to take control in an emergency. Eventually they may have no redundant controls, requiring little more than basic familiarization for anyone using an AV. The disabled, the elderly, the young could own and/or operate an AV without any licence.

Security and misuse

A conventional car's automated systems have already been successfully hacked from outside the vehicle.

Police agencies, including the RCMP, are monitoring AV development. A 2014 FBI report warned criminals would find AVs an excellent getaway vehicle with a flawless AI wheelman. They could also conceivably be used by terrorists to deliver car bombs.

Ms. Shaheen said police already have the ability to remotely access stolen vehicles equipped with the OnStar system. Does that leave open the possibility cops could get a back-door "master key" to take control of errant AVs?

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Mr. Godsmark says AVs also present a privacy challenge. "These things are sensors on wheels," he said. "They are gathering data of everything that's in sight of the road, everyone and everything."

California and Ontario require all AV driving data be stored for at least three years, creating a valuable trove of information for authorities and private businesses, he said. Privacy commissioners have begun to take notice, concerned who might have access.

The economy and public infrastructure

AV technology will provide huge economic opportunities but also render some businesses and jobs obsolete.

Governments should also rethink long-term infrastructure programs, which typically have a 20-year timeline. Is it worthwhile, for instance, to build expensive rapid-transit lines if commuters decide AV services are more flexible and personalized?

The impact on land-use planning also is not clear. Will it lead to more urban densification without the need to set aside as much land for parking? Or it could it trigger fresh growth in suburbs if people find AVs allow them to commute painlessly without gridlock?

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