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Self-driving cars just around the corner, says Ontario expert

Autonomous vehicles are sure to be a focus during the North American International Auto Show, which shifts into gear Sunday, but how close are we to making driverless cars a reality? One expert says we could be less than five years away.

'we are witnessing the birth of the second auto revolution'

The much-anticipated arrival of the fully autonomous vehicle will mark the birth of a second auto revolution that will change the world, says one Ontario expert. 

Barrie Kirk runs the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence in Kanata, Ont. Early signs of the driverless cars are already emerging with semi-autonomous features, such as lane centring and self-parking technology.

But next level of autonomous-driving technology, which will eventually lead to entirely computer-driven cars, will be "very high profile" during the North American International Auto show in Detroit starting next week. 

"We know how much cars have changed individual lives and society in the 20th century, and we are witnessing the birth of the second auto revolution that will change everything all over again," Kirk said, referencing the future of self-driving vehicles.

He predicts commercial vehicles, which will carry passengers and ship products, will be fully autonomous by 2020.

"Initially they'll be available for driverless taxis," he said. "Consumer versions of self-driving cars will be available a short time after that."

No sleeping for commuters in driverless cars

There are still significant issues to work out with autonomous vehicles, including their ability to drive on snow. Then there are the legal issues, such as creating a regulatory framework.

But Kirk expects consumers to embrace the technology once its widely available.

"What appears to be extraordinary, very, very quickly becomes ordinary," he explained.

There will likely be some problems to work out in the early years, particularly if people get too comfortable and rely on the technology too much. 

"The testing has showed people, who should be paying attention, are eating a meal, reading a book, sleeping even," he said. "The sooner we can get away from humans as a plan B and go to truly 100 per cent computer-driven vehicles, the safer it will be."

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