In a near future where a fleet of driverless taxis could be at your beck and call, what public transit will we need? If your car can drop you off and then go home, do we need parking spaces downtown? And what will happen to all the tow-truck drivers and couriers?

These are things Canadians and their governments should be thinking about, says a new report from an independent think-tank focused on economic trends.

Cars and trucks that drive themselves could hit the road in the next decade and save Canadians $65 billion in the form of fewer collisions, reduced traffic congestion, lower fuel costs and less time wasted behind the wheel. But they will also have wide-reaching effects on many areas of the economy, from the demand for fuel to urban planning to the job market, says the report from the Conference Board of Canada. The study was conducted in collaboration with the Van Horne Institute, a Calgary-based think-tank with a special interest in transportation, and the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence (CAVCOE).

"I think we haven't thought about it that much yet," said Vijay Gill, director of policy research for the board and lead author of the report.

"Not only is it going to be cool and neat, but it's going to change the way we live and do business."

Available within 10 years

By 2020, the report says, Google hopes to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road and most major car manufacturers will be selling vehicles capable of driving themselves at least some of the time.


Dieter Zetsche, CEO of German carmaker Daimler, poses in a Mercedes-Benz S-class car. Current models can already automatically accelerate, brake and steer under certain circumstances. (Fabian Bimmer/Reuters)

That's only a small step from some current models such as the Mercedes Benz S-class, which can already automatically accelerate, brake, and stay in the same lane under certain circumstances. By 2025, fully autonomous cars are expected to be available from some traditional car manufacturers.

Using Canadian statistics, Gill calculated some of the potential benefits:

  • There are 2,000 vehicle fatalities a year in Canada, many caused by human error. Self-driving cars could reduce collisions by more than 90 per cent, saving $37.4 billion.
  • Automated vehicles could eliminate five billion hours per year that Canadians spend behind the wheel, worth $20 billion.
  • Self-driving vehicles could potentially reduce the need for car ownership, operate safely while closer to one another and easily adjust to traffic, saving $5 billion a year in congestion costs.
  • They could also reduce fuel costs by $2.6 billion by reducing congestion and the need to drive around looking for parking, and by generally being more fuel efficient.

Increased car-sharing

Individual households could save $2,700 a year, mostly through increased car-sharing, Gill estimates. "If you could get a car very immediately to your door, do you really need to own a car?"

'If you could get a car very immediately to your door, do you really need to own a car?' — Vijay Gill, Conference Board of Canada

Reduced car ownership and the rise of automated taxi services or personalized transit could have many spin-off effects, the report suggested. There could be a reduced demand for parking. Land currently devoted to parking could be turned into other things, densifying cities.

On the other hand, Gill said, automated vehicles may make it cheaper and easier for people to travel and for people who can't drive to use cars. More people may have the incentive to travel longer distances, leading to increased urban sprawl.

"This technology could drive one or the other or both at the same time."

Federal and provincial governments also need to consider the wider potential changes — sectors that involve driving or are closely tied to driving, such as auto insurance or parking, may suffer. On the other hand, new jobs related to the sensors and software that enable self-driving cars may arise.

Transit planning

Gill suggests some of these changes could be barriers to the adoption of self-driving vehicles.

The potential job losses may cause some people to lobby for a slower transition away from human drivers. He pointed out that some public transit vehicles are already capable of driving themselves, but still have drivers for this reason.

Other hurdles include a lack of insurance rules about who is responsible in the case of a collision involving a self-driving vehicle and the cost of the technology, which needs to drop before it is widely adopted.

In the meantime, the report urges governments to consider the potential effects of automated vehicles on major infrastructure projects such as transit, which are planned decades ahead.

"If we're planning that for 30 years now and making more or less billions of investments to do it," he said, "I think this work is worth at least a footnote and probably quite a bit more than that."