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Toronto's financial district is a busy place. Drivers in slow-moving cars honk horns, delivery vans double park and pedestrians in suits fill the sidewalks in the rush to work.

They hustle into one of many high-rise towers, push the up button, wait for the elevator, step into it, press the floor button and look down at their smartphone as they are transported up. The process of riding an elevator has become instinctual and the only human interaction with the machine is pushing two buttons.

Elevators have been around, at least in a basic form, for more than 3,000 years, says Rob Isabelle, chief operating officer for KJA Consultants in Toronto. Elevators have existed in the modern form since the middle of the 19th century and for the majority of the past 150 years, they have been driven by an operator.

"You couldn't get by without an operator because you or I couldn't drive (an elevator) car," says Lee Gray, a professor of architectural history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has written a book on the history of elevators. "I tried to do it once and missed by 6 inches."

Until after the Second World War, the operator would manually control the speed and open and close the doors at the correct spot. Gray says it was considered a skill and, in some states, operators required a license.

The first operator-less elevator made an appearance in the early 1900s, but it would take almost six decades for it to become the norm.

By the early 1950s, traffic-control technology had advanced enough that operator-less elevators could be used in high-rise office towers – and a lot of business people weren't happy.

"We have clear stories of people walking into elevators and walking right back out," says Gray. "Passengers were saying, 'I don't want to drive this thing, where is the operator?' It took most of the 1950s for that technology to gradually become commonplace, for people to understand it was their job to push the button. Many of them just didn't feel comfortable."

Gray says the discomfort was caused by people being in a tiny room, where they can't see the machine working, can't feel if the elevator is moving and can't see if there is a problem. "Seems silly for us today, but they would stand there and say, 'I don't want to push the button, what if I push the wrong button?'"

Operator-less elevators were commonplace by the end of the 1950s and today we don't give much thought to pushing a button and letting the machine take control.

"There are a lot of comparisons (to the autonomous car)," says Isabelle.

According to a study conducted by consumer market research firm GFK, only a quarter of Canadian drivers see the appeal of self-driving cars. That number plummets if drivers can't use a self-driving car when drunk and needing to get home. A NerdWallet survey last year found half of drivers aren't interested in owning a self-driving car and 46 per cent believe driverless cars won't be safe.

At Kia's California Proving Ground deep in the desert about 160 kilometres north of Los Angeles, an engineer pushed a button on a watch-like device and the company's new autonomous car prototype pulls out of its parking spot and picks us up. We hop in, the driver presses a button, puts his hands in his lap and we're off. The car does the rest of the work and makes all the decisions. It slows down when a pedestrian darts into the street, it stops for stop signs and changes lanes to go around slower cars. The car stops at the end of the test, we hop out and the driver pushes another button on the watch-like device. The car then, with no human in it, finds the nearest parking spot and backs in.

Kia has just received special plates for the prototypes and will begin testing it on Nevada streets. However, the South Korean car maker is relatively late to the game. For example:

  • Audi has put journalists in the passenger seat as a self-driving car screamed around a race track at 200 km/h.
  • Ford is testing autonomous features in the snow in Michigan.
  • Google cars have logged more than 2 million kilometres.
  • Daimler showed off autonomous big rigs.
  • Tesla sent an over-the-air update that allows cars to change lanes by themselves.
  • There is talk of a driverless car race series.

Many companies are setting a goal of 2030 for producing a fully autonomous car because there is still much to do. There are the issues of snow and rain, insurance, new laws and of course, ensuring that when people get into a self-driving car for the first time they don't hate the experience.

"The Google car may be one concept," Honda chair Fumihiko Ike says. "These technologies are becoming fast available. We need to have a global discussion of how society will look at it."

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