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Business Commentary Vehicle automation: The missing piece in Canada’s green infrastructure puzzle

David Ticoll is Distinguished Senior Fellow in the Innovation Policy Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.

As Canadian governments contemplate massive investments in green technologies and new infrastructure, they seem to be ignoring an important piece of the puzzle: the potential (and the risks) of the coming wave of vehicle automation. Wednesday's otherwise impressive announcements from the Government of Ontario are no exception.

More than a million jobs are involved in the construction, use, care and feeding of this country's cars and trucks. Fuels and lubricants, whose emissions overheat the planet and whose airborne toxins cause 20,000 premature deaths every year, are central to Canada's oil economy. In 2014, vehicle collisions caused more than 1,800 fatalities and 10,000 serious injuries. The auto sector provided 13 per cent of Canada's exports in 2014.

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Meanwhile, congestion drives Canadians crazy every day and costs urban economies billions of dollars. Progressive urban design is held to ransom by the existing road network and drivers' expectations of it. Uber has thrown urban governments across the country into chaos and confusion. And, of course, we all love our cars.

For better and worse, the transportation system is central to the way Canada works, its economy and our quality of life.

Digital mobility – the combination of autonomous vehicles and on-demand mobility services enabled by digital data – offers the potential to solve many, perhaps all, of the problems associated with today's transportation technologies. But Canada is behind in the digital mobility race. Global tech companies, global car companies and their major suppliers are leading the digital mobility revolution, but Canada does not house the headquarters of a single global technology or car company. Only one major supplier, Magna International, has a Canadian head office.

The world's most active digital mobility clusters are in the United States, Germany, China, Sweden and even France – all countries with home-based global car companies. Only the United States and China have tech sectors with lead positions in digital mobility – driven by domestically headquartered global tech firms like Apple, Baidu, Google and Uber.

The Government of Ontario has invited companies to test their automated vehicles in the province. There are a few digital mobility startups and suppliers. And news that General Motors will hire 1,000 engineers in Ontario to design innovative autonomous and electric vehicles is an important and exciting breakthrough. But that's about it, at least for now.

It's not just about technology innovation. Governments around the world are rethinking and investing in infrastructure, urban planning and fiscal strategies for the era of digital mobility – policy innovation is moving nearly as fast as the technology. But Canada is barely thinking about it.

Even so, Canada still has a unique opportunity for global leadership. But we need to think differently. Employment, taxation and information strategies must change. Digital mobility will automate, deskill, render unnecessary or disrupt the competitiveness of hundreds of thousands of jobs. Concerted domestic and international action is needed to ensure that Silicon Valley mobility firms pay a fair share of taxes. And we need to tackle the control and use of mobility data to ensure that traffic management is efficient and safe, maximizes the public interest and ensures consumer privacy.

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Underlying these three examples is a deeper issue. Canada needs the technology sector's innovations, as well as the high-quality jobs it creates. However, the public interest sometimes differs from the interests of these firms.

Canada's cities and provinces have been there before. Although land developers are essential to urban life and growth, their interests don't always align with the public interest. Governments devote entire divisions, budgets and policy frameworks to supporting and regulating land developers. They consult with residents and other stakeholders on land-use policies and plans.

But few governments have comparable tool kits for information developers and information use. This is a 21st-century challenge. Automation is now turning information into the key asset underlying many economic and social activities, including transportation. Constructing such a policy tool kit, with the attendant mandates, funding and resources, is an urgent priority.

Beyond jobs, taxes and information, digital mobility could transform our assumptions about many other policy domains, such as:

  • Environmental impact. How will we achieve the highest possible environmental benefits from vehicle automation?
  • Industry development. What will happen to Canada’s auto and oil sectors when cars are small, light and full of electronics? How will we compete in the digital mobility market?
  • Infrastructure. How should digital mobility change today’s and tomorrow’s transportation investments?
  • Congestion and land use. How will we limit vehicle use and urban sprawl when on-demand mobility is convenient and cheap?
  • Ownership. What is the role of government in the operation and delivery of digital mobility services?
  • Fiscal strategies. How will digital mobility change our assumptions about government revenue sources and spending priorities?

Canada faces a unique moment. Everywhere, we have tech-savvy leaders who are excited about reinvention. And we plan to invest in green technologies and transportation infrastructure at levels unseen in generations.

The timing is perfect for Canada to commit itself to a nation-building digital mobility strategy for the 21st century. We've done this before – the national dream of railways during the 19th century and the national highway system of the mid-20th century.

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Here's a vision: By 2030 or sooner, Canada emerges as a global leader in the effective adoption of digital mobility technologies to protect the environment and the planet; to improve health, safety and accessibility; to revitalize urban design; to protect individual and collective information rights; and to build a vibrant, equitable and innovative economy.

How do we get there? It begins with clear leadership from federal and provincial governments, using Canada's infrastructure and green investment plans as points of leverage. All levels of government should assign, fund and staff mandates to develop cross-functional strategies and implementation plans, including tangible goals for 2030 and immediate action – starting now.

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