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Many Canadians see self-driving cars as a licence to behave badly: survey

In this file photo from Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, a driver, right, gets his hands off of the steering wheel of an autonomous vehicle during its test drive in Singapore.

Yong Teck Lim/AP

The image of drivers texting, dozing or sipping a martini while they sit at the wheel and let their autonomous vehicles do all the work prevails among a significant number of Canadians.

That's a troubling finding from a survey of Canadians about self-driving vehicles by the Traffic Injury Research Foundation, a non-profit road safety organization. The survey of more than 2,600 Canadians found that 9 per cent of those surveyed said they would drink and drive; 10 per cent would sleep or nap; and 17 per cent would do something unrelated to driving.

"These results are disturbing and illustrated that at least some drivers mistakenly believe that these vehicle technologies do not require driver input or attention at all times," the foundation said in a report on the results, which will be released Thursday.

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Another 35 per cent of those surveyed said that if they were late, they would disengage self-driving technology in order to drive faster and 13 per cent would take over so they could run red lights.

The survey results indicate that autonomous vehicles, sporting cutting-edge technology and designed to make the roads safer, may have the opposite effect.

"This has considerable potential to increase crashes due to driver error and underscores that drivers may negatively modify their behaviour and decrease their safety because they do not understand the limitations of these technologies or how to use them correctly," said the foundation, which is based in Nepean, Ont.

The survey comes as auto makers, technology companies and parts suppliers spend billions in the race to develop fully autonomous vehicles, and as more of the technological advances that provide the groundwork for the age of the self-driving car become available on current vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are being tested in pilot projects under controlled, ideal driving conditions in various U.S. states, but industry experts believe they are a decade or more away from being widely available, despite the perception that they are around the corner.

The new technology being rolled out now is necessary before fully autonomous vehicles become available, but it needs to enhance the role of an aware and informed driver at the wheel, said Stephen Beatty, corporate vice-president of Toyota Canada Inc. The Toyota Canada Foundation financed the study.

When people ask about the self-driving car, they wonder how soon they will be able to put their children in such a vehicle and send them off to hockey practice, Mr. Beatty said. But even as they ask that, many drivers don't understand how new technology that assists drivers works, and even have trouble with older safety aids such as anti-lock brakes, he said.

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He noted that Toyota is rolling out 2017 Corolla compact cars with the auto maker's Safety Sense technology that includes automatic high beams, assistance to keep a car in its lane, and a collision warning system.

"If the system detects an imminent crash and you're not activating the brakes, the vehicle will apply braking," he said.

But if consumers aren't educated about this technology and others, they will have a moment of indecision, or worse, could panic.

"The first [time] that people should experience an automated system shouldn't be in the middle of an emergency because you don't have the time to analyze what's happening and to make fully rational decisions," he said.

The foundation called for increased education of consumers.

"Drivers must recognize that continued and sustained attention to the driving task is essential to avoid increases in crash risk," it said.

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Mr. Beatty said Toyota is trying to educate its consumers, in particular between the time when they purchase the car and take delivery.

Dealers will send information to buyers about the safety systems that include links to videos so they can learn how the systems work.

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More

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