A transportation advocate says driverless cars could be ready for Canadian roads within four years, but nobody seems to be at the wheel to regulate and plan for such vehicles.
"The model that government likes to use in transportation — in trying and testing it and doing the research — we don't have time for that. It just won't happen smoothly as we want it to," said Paul Godsmark, a former highway designer living near Edmonton who now gives presentations to transportation officials.
'This technology is going to hit us a bit like a tidal wave.' —Paul Godsmark, former highway designer
"This technology is going to hit us a bit like a tidal wave. And if we're ready, great. And if we're not, tough. It's coming anyway."
Technology company Google Inc. has said its fleet of a dozen computer-controlled vehicles — mostly Toyota Priuses equipped with self-driving technology — has logged almost 483,000 kilometres without an accident.
Last year, Nevada became the first U.S. state to approve regulations that spell out requirements for companies that want to test driverless cars. California has passed legislation that requires its Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by Jan. 1, 2015.
In Canada, where provincial governments are responsible for motor vehicle regulations, similar legislation could be a long way off.
Bob Nichols, a spokesman for the Ministry of Transportation in Ontario, said in an email to The Canadian Press that the province, along with Transport Canada, is evaluating the technology and monitoring developments. But no legislation is in the works.
"The ministry reviews all new vehicle types and technology to determine whether they are safe for Ontario's roads as well as how safely they can be integrated with other vehicles and pedestrians," Nichols said.
A spokesman with Alberta's Transportation Department said there are no discussions at the moment about regulations for self-driving cars in that province either.
Federal government legislation regulates the manufacture and importation of motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment.
Transport Canada spokeswoman Andrea Moritz said in an email that the department is working with world experts to set vehicle standards for intelligent transportation systems that relieve or assist drivers.
Moritz said as systems evolve, they may allow for driverless driving.
"Transport Canada would permit the importation of a driverless vehicle, provided that it has been certified by the manufacturer as complying with the safety standards that apply to the vehicle class," Moritz wrotes.
Godsmark, who made a presentation on autonomous vehicles earlier this year to the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, said a number of legal issues arise with vehicles that drive themselves at the push of a button.
Would someone without a driver's licence be permitted to operate one? Would a child be allowed to ride in one alone? Would it be legal to let the car drive you home while you watched a movie on your computer tablet?
Issues still remain
What if you were drunk? And if an autonomous vehicle crashed while on autopilot, who would be responsible?
Many automobiles already provide assistance to drivers in certain situations. Cruise control and anti-lock brakes have been around for years. Newer examples include parking assistance and forward collision avoidance, which can take charge of the brakes when a crash is imminent.
Some vehicles are already able to drive themselves in simple, low-speed situations such as traffic jams, when it's only necessary to advance a few metres at a time.
Licensed driver still needed
The regulations in California would allow cars to operate on their own, but a licensed driver would still need to sit behind the wheel to serve as backup in case of emergency.
Godsmark said automakers and legislators seem to prefer an incremental approach toward automated driving. It's how improvements have always been introduced since motoring began, he said.
But technology from such companies as Google means it's probable somebody in Canada could equip a vehicle to drive by itself very soon, he said.
'This will impact society as much as the Internet has done.' —Paul Godsmark, former highway designer
"This … represents a potential paradigm shift, because the very fact that a car can reposition itself without anyone at the wheel suddenly changes how the road system operates, how we use it, where we live, how we live, where we work, how we work … And yet it seems so simple — a car that can drive itself," said Godsmark.
"There are massive benefits to be gained if we can get the sub-optimal humans out of the equation.
"This will impact society as much as the Internet has done."
Godsmark suggested cars that can park themselves without a driver would mean parking lots could be put in different places. Hospitals would see fewer emergency patients because collisions would decrease.
Vehicles could be spaced closer together. They could also be lighter, since crash protection wouldn't be so important. That, in turn, would improve vehicle efficiency.
Godsmark goes so far as to suggest the automobile insurance industry could be wiped out. Ridership on mass transit systems could dwindle.
A spokesperson with the Insurance Bureau of Canada said it doesn't have a policy on self-driving vehicles yet, because the technology is still in its infancy.