Self-driving cars: How they could take over our roads

Many of us envision a future where driverless cars stream through our streets and highways as we lounge in the back, watching videos and checking email. Here's what experts think our roads will look like between now and then.

Vehicles capable of driving themselves will be here in 5 years, before we're ready for them, experts say

Google has been testing self-driving cars on the streets around Mountain View, Calif. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

Many of us have a vision of the future in which driverless cars will stream efficiently through our streets and highways as we lounge in the back, watching videos and checking email. 

What's fuzzier is how to navigate a road to that utopian future.

While it sometimes looks like self-driving cars might arrive soon, experts say the transition will be a gradual process, with our cars getting a little smarter and drivers getting a little more hands-off every step of the way.

The regulation won't come as fast as the industry can provide the technology.— Rob Shirra, Intelligent Transportation Systems Society of Canada

That's not necessarily the impression we get from the makers of self-driving car technology. Already, self-driving cars have been tested by Google on the roads of Mountain View, Calif. An Audi Q5 equipped with self-driving technology developed by Delphi Corp. completed a 5,500-kilometre road trip from San Francisco to New York earlier this month, driving itself 99 per cent of the time.

Begin with backseat driving

But while cars are technologically close to being able to take the wheel on their own, many experts think that in the near future, at least, they'll mainly be backseat drivers.

Walt Fehr and Mike Pina of the U.S. Department of Transportation anticipate a gradual transition to self-driving cars, with cars initially being backseat drivers offering advice, but no action. (Emily Chung/CBC)

Already, many cars have features that alert drivers about vehicles or objects behind them as they're backing up or if they're starting to drift out of their lane.

Automakers are also developing technology that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other, something that governments are considering making mandatory in the near future.

A car that's about to run a red light will be able to alert other cars in the intersection, for example, says Mike Pina, program manager of communications and outreach for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

"Your car is going to see things that you can't," he said at a discussion on the future of connected cars at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin last month. "Your car will get a warning letting you know not to go into that intersection."

For now, he says, he doesn't envision situations where technology will take over your car.

But many car manufacturers are already putting technology into new vehicles that lets them parallel park themselves or brake automatically in emergencies.

Capable but not legal

Rob Shirra, managing director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Society of Canada, anticipates that all the technologies required for a car to drive itself will be in place within five years.

An Audi Q5 equipped with self-driving technology developed by Delphi Corp. completed a 5,500-kilometre road trip from San Francisco to New York earlier this month, driving itself 99 per cent of the time.

But he doesn't think it will be legal for cars to drive themselves at that point.

"The regulation won't come as fast as the industry can provide the technology," he said in a recent interview with CBC News.

Currently, he said, some countries in Europe and Asia have opened up their roads for testing automated vehicles, but none have said they will allow more than testing.

"In Canada," he said, "we're a long way from that sort of regulatory regime."

Another problem is that insurance companies have yet to work out who is responsible if an automated vehicle is involved in a collision.

"Those are huge societal issues," he added. "Those are not going to get solved overnight."

Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronic systems at Ford Research and Innovation, anticipates that as cars are equipped with more and more self-driving capabilities, many of those issues will get worked out gradually.

But even when cars can legally drive themselves, he suggests, human drivers may not be ready. In fact, he thinks that's the biggest barrier to adoption of self-driving vehicles.

"You know, the simple consumer acceptance — how are we going to address people feeling comfortable?" he said at a panel discussion organized by the Connected Car Council during the South by Southwest Festival.

In an interview after the panel discussion, fellow panellist Ginger Goodin, director of the Policy Research Center at Texas A&M Transportation Institute, agreed that for many people, moving out of the driver's seat is a big shift in behaviour that could take time.

"I have great hope in the younger generation," she said, "because I think they would be more open to that."


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