Can new vehicle technology prevent attacks like the one in Toronto? The experts aren't so sure

The van attack that killed 10 people in north Toronto has some observers asking if there's a high-tech way to prevent similar assaults. But experts say it won't be enough to stop anyone from using vehicles as weapons.

Autonomous tech can slow down vehicle attacks, but won't stop them completely, professor says

The van used in the attack sits on a sidewalk near Yonge Street and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto. (Warren Toda/EFE/EPA)

The van attack that killed 10 people in north Toronto has some observers asking if there's a high-tech way to prevent similar assaults. But experts say technology won't be enough to stop people from using vehicles as weapons.

"Technology is not alone the answer to these issues," said Jez Littlewood, an assistant professor of international affairs at Carleton University, after a driver plowed through pedestrians on a busy stretch of Yonge Street on Monday. 

Alek Minassian, 25, has been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. Police have said a 14th count is expected. 

Toronto is now among several cities in Europe and North America where vehicles were recently used to kill pedestrians. In 2016 and 2017, drivers used that method of violence in Nice, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Edmonton and other cities.

Littlewood compared the number of dead in the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack, in which 12 people were killed, to the more than 80 victims of the attack in Nice, France.

Investigators work at the scene near the heavy truck that ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores who were celebrating the Bastille Day July 14 national holiday on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

​A report in 2016 suggested that it was the automated emergency braking system, a European Union requirement for certain vehicles, that may have stopped the driver in the Berlin attack, avoiding further fatalities.

"There's an easy contrast there between the potential implications of these kinds of systems," Littlewood said, referring to the emergency braking in one case and not the other. 

Rescue workers inspect the scenes and the truck that crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin, December 19, 2016. (Paul Zinken/EPA)

In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTA) has praised a commitment from auto manufacturers to make automatic emergency braking a regular feature in new vehicles. The NHTSA said AEB systems use "sensors … to detect an imminent crash, warn the driver and apply the brakes if the driver does not take sufficient action quickly enough."

But implementing technology poses challenges, Littlewood said, and widespread changes in the fleets of trucking and logistics companies take time.  

'There isn't a permanent fix'

Littlewood also describes what he calls a "transference" in how people try to inflict mass casualties. When x-rays and metal directors at airports stopped passengers from bringing weapons onto planes, people looked for other ways to do harm, he says.  And vehicles have proven a simple and effective weapon for extremists.

"There isn't a permanent fix," Littlewood said.

Ross McKenzie, the managing director of the University of Waterloo Centre for Automotive Research, agrees.

McKenzie says automatic braking systems and autonomous driving technologies are enhancements to vehicles, but they don't override human intervention.

A screenshot from a cellphone video shows a police officer arresting the suspect in the van attack in Toronto on Monday. (CBC News)

"It doesn't replace manual driving," McKenzie said, referring to automatic braking.

"If you turn it off, it's … just like a car I'm driving in right now," he said.

David Ticoll, a distinguished scholar at the Munk School of Global Affairs who has studied autonomous vehicles, says autonomous features are not completely reliable, and must therefore continue to allow for driver intervention.

"I don't think there's a technology solution to this problem … at this stage," he said.