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The Globe and Mail

How autonomous vehicles will transform economies

Barrie Kirk is executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

Three separate but linked technologies will soon change our lives and our cities as much as the introduction of the car changed the 20th century.

Autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, and electric vehicles are separate technologies that are already converging. In the 2020s, we will see far more vehicles that are automated, connected and electric.

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AVs will be here much sooner than most people realize. Special purpose, fully autonomous vehicles are already commercially available. For example, two European companies now market second-generation, fully autonomous electric shuttle buses. AVs for personal use will be in showrooms by 2020.

Electric vehicles are a technology whose time has finally arrived. We are seeing significant advances in battery life and drive-train technologies, driven by the goal of sustainable energy.

The biggest single beneficiary of these new technologies will be the environment, because of the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Another benefit is a reduction in the number of collisions. Approximately 2,000 people die in traffic collisions in Canada each year. New vehicle technologies are expected to reduce collisions, fatalities and injuries by 80 per cent.

The introduction of driverless taxis will have a substantial impact on personal mobility. This will improve the quality of life for disabled people and seniors. A change from personal car ownership to mobility service will save the average Canadian family almost $3,000 a year.

Currently, 4 to 5 per cent of a car's value is technology. This is expected to rise to between 40 and 60 per cent in the 2020s, creating big opportunities for Canadian technology companies.

And our cities will benefit too. Up to 30 per cent of land in major cities is currently used for parking. Driverless taxis that don't need to park as much will allow planners to redefine urban spaces.

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But there will also be downsides. The increased use of electric vehicles in the 2020s will cause a significant decline in global demand for oil. The business plans of the oil and pipeline industries will be disrupted. It is likely that the current low price of oil is not temporary, but the beginnings of a systemic effect that may lead to even lower oil prices through the 2020s.

Another downside is job losses, particularly for people who drive for a living. This will lead to social unrest. The current tension between taxi drivers and Uber is just the beginning.

What can governments do to help leverage the benefits and mitigate the downsides?

First, we recommend that the federal government create a Canadian Autonomous Vehicle Institute to co-ordinate the deployment of AVs in Canada, to create an AV ecosystem and to promote R&D and testing.

This would require significant levels of funding, of course. The institute would be modelled on similar organizations that have been created in Britain, the Netherlands, Australia and Singapore.

A major trend in the United States and elsewhere is to encourage the creation of smart cities and smart infrastructure, which includes autonomous and connected vehicle technologies, big data and analytics. Our second recommendation is that the federal government sets aside 1 per cent of the planned infrastructure funding for smart infrastructure. This will help our cities – by reducing traffic gridlock, for example – and help Canadian technology companies compete in the global market.

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Mobility services will have a significant impact on local transportation and transit. We recommend that municipalities and transit companies incorporate the impact of AVs into their master plans.

Finally, we recommend that federal and provincial governments recognize that the auto industry will change more in the next 10 years than it has in the past 100. We recommend that governments make a significant investment in AV development, testing and related activities in the auto and technology industries and universities.

Canada's economy is on the brink of a disruptive change. We recommend that this change be actively managed by all levels of government to maximize the benefits to all Canadians in the century to come.

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