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Ahmed Karam takes his hands off the steering wheel as his Tesla Model S drives in autopilot mode in Toronto on Feb. 20. (Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail)
Ahmed Karam takes his hands off the steering wheel as his Tesla Model S drives in autopilot mode in Toronto on Feb. 20. (Mark Blinch/Globe and Mail)

Driverless cars signal arrival of transportation’s next major revolution Add to ...

Heading into downtown Toronto on the Don Valley Parkway, the driver casually lifts his hands off the steering wheel. His vehicle continues smoothly, without drifting or jerking. As the road curves, the wheel turns itself to hold the car neatly in its lane, keeping its occupants a safe distance from others driving nearby.

To other motorists, the only clue that this car is driving itself is the way the person sitting at the wheel occasionally uses both his hands in mid-air to express a point of conversation. The vehicle is otherwise indistinguishable to the casual onlooker. But for all it looking the same on the outside, this is one of a new generation of vehicles paving the way for what could be the biggest revolution in transportation in generations.

“It was a bit scary but it’s like, wow, this actually is happening,” said Ahmed Karam, recalling the first time he let the “autopilot” of his Tesla Model S take over, steering and changing lanes through a combination of radar, ultrasonic sensors, cameras and data.

“You never thought in our lifetimes. You know, we only saw that kind of stuff in The Jetsons. But it’s available today.”

There are still limitations. No car manufacturer has managed to get a fully autonomous vehicle into regular production. The models being touted by makers – everyone from Mercedes to Volvo to Lexus – offer only some degree of hands-off control, usually in specific circumstances. But these vehicles are the stepping stones that many observers say will lead to truly driverless cars in common use within as little as five years.

The implications are potentially huge. In the best-case scenario, this results in vastly fewer vehicles on the road, reduced congestion and collisions and less need for parking spaces taking up valuable urban real estate. But if the cards play out differently, it could instead prompt more sprawl, and a massive increase in driving as people send empty vehicles on errands.

Or maybe, according to Sanjay Khanna, it’ll be a bit of both.

“In a time of disruptive change, you have more unintended consequences, and so it’s not an either or,” said the futurist-in-residence at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and inaugural resident futurist at the University of Toronto’s Massey College.

“You’ll have places of incredible density and efficiency that are built around these kinds of models, around autonomous vehicles, around intraurban transport … and then you might see some occasions where there’s this extension of sprawl.”

Mr. Khanna was speaking during a demonstration on the DVP this weekend of Tesla’s semi-autonomous vehicle, a capability rolled out in October. Joining him was Arash Barol, general manager of the car-pooling company BlancRide. Both will be part of a panel discussion Thursday at Ryerson on the future of transportation – along with Uber Canada head Ian Black and Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

The drive down the DVP was a preview of what they’ll talk about Thursday.

The question of driverless cars looms large over transportation. Although opinions range from very optimistic to somewhat pessimistic, most agree that they will change the way people move.

Even before their arrival, they are already having an effect.

In December, the Ontario government called a pause to preparatory work toward a possible expansion of Highway 407 to consider whether, in a time of rapidly changing technology, more highways should be the way to go. Long-term and very expensive public-transit projects are being questioned – albeit often by people who are no fans of transit – under the logic that they may not be needed if driverless cars reshape transportation.

The road toward fully driverless has not been smooth, though.

A Volvo feature that helps prevent the vehicle itself being hit in city traffic was widely criticized for making “pedestrian detection” an option that costs more. A duo who made a high-speed trip across the United States in a Tesla S, much of it on autopilot at 150 kilometres per hour, said the car doggedly stuck within the painted lanes on curves instead of finding the best line through the corner, as a human driver would do.

Minor collisions are gleefully reported on by skeptical media. Questions are raised about how to program morality into the car’s decision making.

The last big unknown is whether people will want one of their own.

A world in which people commute solo in their own autonomous vehicles – binge-watching Netflix or working on their phone instead of driving – is not transformatively different from the current situation.

But a more profound shift could come from the next generation. Millennials have both bought into the so-called sharing economy and exhibit less interest in driving than previous generations. If these trends hold, they may not want their own car, preferring a driverless vehicle available on demand and shared among multiple people.

“I think a business like ours is going to be embedded in the car,” said BlancRide’s Mr. Barol. “On the consumer side, I still have the app, but the car also has the app. So then, for example, when [someone] gets in his car, he can just know that – through the dashboard right in the car – that, hey, there’s this person on your way that is requesting a ride, so they can also be picked up and go.”

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